May 18, 2011 — Richmond's storied industrial East End brought together architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and community history students from the University of Virginia to explore the landscape's past and ways to transform and reinvigorate the area.
The Fulton Gas Works – in operation from 1851 until 1972 and at one time the source of gas illumination for the entire city – and the adjacent residential community and Chimborazo and Libby Hills parks are today underutilized. The gas works site, along the James River, is abandoned; issues of soil and groundwater pollution caused by the coal gasification process are major considerations in reimagining the site, which lies in a 100-year flood plain.
Last fall, students in landscape architecture professor Julie Bargmann's Regenerative Technologies course and associate professor of historic preservation Daniel Bluestone's Community History Workshop course studied ways to remediate the polluted soil and groundwater and researched the social, cultural and political history of the landscape. The workshop students scoured various archives, including the University's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, to produce detailed histories.
The resulting studies provided the framework for architecture and landscape architecture students in a spring-semester design course to reimagine the site with the aim of reintegrating it into the life of the city and the river.
Architecture professor Maurice Cox and Marlon Blackwell, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Visiting Professor in Architecture, taught the spring course. Blackwell, chair of the architecture department at the University of Arkansas' Fay Jones School of Architecture, brought a unique perspective to the class.
His interest in buildings, how they are crafted and how to think about them in context, along with the series of drawing techniques that he brought to his teaching, were "fantastic," Cox said.
"Marlon Blackwell brought an exciting new perspective to our design process," graduate architecture student Oscar Obando said. "He taught us new techniques in making – particularly the tonal drawings and assemblage of found objects that helped identify our impressions and instincts of the site. I believe his understanding and ability to balance research and design made for a more meaningful project."
With the research of the Community History Workshop students to inform their decisions, the design students respected the history of the site and its neighboring landscape in creating their projects, Cox said.
The students designed several projects for the site, including a brewery, thermal bath, community center, sculpture studios and a sculpture school, each incorporating various aspects of the ruins, which include buildings, raised catwalks, boiler rooms and the frame of the gasometer.
The great thing about the collaboration and information sharing between the fall and spring semester students "is that it lets them share in real time. Their work becomes stronger and more vigorous for having the collaboration," Bluestone said.
Cox said, "The design students benefited greatly from being able to incorporate real research in to the design process. The volume and quality of research and the access to the researchers was invaluable. It's unusual to start a studio that way."
During the first five weeks of the semester, the students learned about what each discipline does and how it affects each other.
Second-year landscape architecture graduate student Kate Boles said the collaboration was vital to her design. "You cannot design without collaboration with other disciplines. This [collaborative approach] is why I came to U.Va."
One of four of the design students in Bluestone's Community History Workshop, she plans to follow a path in her professional life that will be at the "intersection of preservation and social justice with art, aesthetics and sustainability," she said.
Obando said he felt the collaboration with the community history class "was of tremendous influence – not only for the resources of information, but to have a group of people who have invested energy in the site brought a new level of meaning to the design and challenge to refine our intent."
His thermal bath design played on the history of the site and gas production. "The site was a machine. The buildings were machines. I used the notion of a machine to interweave the new program."
The semester culminated with a presentation of all the students' work to a group of invited guests.
Community History Workshop students presented two displays of pictures and historical research of the Fulton Gas Works, the immediate residential neighborhood and the adjoining Chimborazo Park. They also shared a guidebook one team compiled to allow visitors an interpretative experience of the site neighborhood surrounding the gas works.
The research on Chimborazo Park looked at the layers of history and development of the park, and included a history of agricultural activity, early subdivision into gardens, and its later use as a Confederate barracks and military hospital and a refugee camp for freed slaves.
The neighborhood history focused on the impact of the gas works by looking at themes: transportation; the people who lived and worked there; health, including the noxious fumes and unhealthy conditions during the plant's heyday and the contaminated "brownfield" site that remains today; how consumption of gas and expansion of the plant affected the neighborhood; and the threat of flooding, including a major flood in 1877.
The students also presented a guidebook they created for the area. Aaron Wunsch, a graduate of the U.Va.'s architectural history program and an adjunct professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "The guidebook is great. I am always amazed by what community history brings together."
Architecture School Dean Kim Tanzer said, "The history, both chronological and thematic, was an interesting way of presenting the work."
She also commented on the design students' models and renderings and the challenges of building on existing sites. "The older structures have a character already, and to capture that is not easy." This design work "begins to speak to us beyond representations of contemporary design solutions."
Rachel Flynn, former planning director for the city of Richmond, said, "It would be terrific if this could be presented to the [Richmond] city council so they could start thinking outside the box and tell the story" of the site and its place in the city's history.
Bluestone and Cox are exploring ways to make the students' work readily available. The design plans and community history research will be posted on a website. They are approaching the Richmond National Battlefield Park, which includes the "Chimborazo Medical Museum," to incorporate the students' research to expand the understanding of the cultural history of the site. Bluestone said he also is seeking a collaborator to publish the guidebook.
"This was one of the most meaningful projects I have done in my academic career," Obando said.