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Brambleton Sculpture Park
–Thom White, AIA, Work Program Architects
On October 31, the Chrysler Museum of Art hosted a ribbon-cutting for its new Brambleton Sculpture Park. Located at the corner of Brambleton Avenue and Yarmouth Street, the space is anchored by Jumbo-Wumbo Technico, a 32-foot whimsical sculpture by Richmond artist Tommy Fox. Brambleton Sculpture Park is the realization of a longtime vision of a core committee led by Museum trustees Doug Perry, Tom Stokes, and Joe Waldo. My firm, Work Program Architects (WPA), was enlisted early in the process to coordinate the site design with the work of art that would be placed there.
From the beginning, we knew the site selected for the park is special. It is a gateway to the Chrysler Museum from the south and marks the southwest corner of the NEON District at a crossroads of constant movement—thousands of cars traveling east and west on Brambleton Avenue day and night, passengers using The Tide’s York Street/Freemason Light Rail Station, families on foot or bikes moving between neighborhoods, and people training at the Blocker Norfolk Family YMCA. There was no way an artwork of static subtlety would be able to compete with the surrounding cacophony. The piece would require vibrancy, scale, and punch. The committee achieved that goal in a big way with Fox’s colorful creation.
The process of designing such a place was a constant reminder of how important it is to have artists and curators involved in the shaping of public space from the very beginning. Meetings with Chrysler Museum director Erik Neil and Chrysler curators Seth Feman and Kimberli Gant yielded a set of parameters that assured there would be intention and consideration in all aspects of the place–the siting of the work and its presentation in context, the quality of materials for resilience and harmony, and the visitor experience in their encounter with the work from afar and up close.
WPA was fortunate to be part of a robust project team assembled to execute the work. John Payne, Brambleton Sculpture Park Project Manager, brought skilled teams for shaping the site: grading and landscaping, electrical work, and the paving for the walkways. W. Carter Sinclair, Jr., P.E. of Sinclair Pratt Cameron, P.C. served as the project’s structural engineer and planned for the ages. Invisible below the surface is a 10’x10’ steel-reinforced concrete slab that will not only keep Jumbo-Wumbo Technico from overturning or sinking in the boggy Norfolk soils but will be a stable foundation for works to be placed there for the enjoyment of many generations to come.
A distinct pleasure was being able to visit the local sites of making for the components of the work, like the cavernous shop at Colonna’s Shipyard, where pistons and hulls for all manners of enormous seafaring vessels are wrought. President and CEO Tom Godfrey opened his office to us, where much of the deliberation about the work happened socially-distanced around the conference room table with a birds-eye view of the ships in drydock and the working riverfront beyond. It was a special reminder to me of the tradition we have in this region for skill in shaping materials into complex and gargantuan forms. I felt a similar sense of awe when visiting John Belcher’s shop at Art Graphics n Designs in Virginia Beach. The immaculately clean, high-tech space for metalworking and finishing felt like a scientific lab. Seeing Fox’s shapes in gleaming aluminum before they were painted was an experience I’m glad I didn’t miss.
The biggest joy of the project came from collaborating directly with the artist. From the moment Tommy Fox presented the maquette of the sculpture—on a lazy Susan-style turntable with a plastic giraffe for human scale (not giraffe scale)—I knew this was going to be fun, and it was. Even when the pandemic set in and changed the way we could collaborate, we figured out how to patiently navigate a process of understanding through sharing digital models, messages, late phone calls, and site visits. We went through the public approvals process almost 100% via Zoom, and it was always a joyful experience to watch the grid of civic league and City committee members’ faces light up when the conversations turned to the plans for the sculpture park. That maquette’s lazy Susan sure did come in handy sitting on the work-from-home desk in my kitchen for showing off the piece on the computer screen.
In this turbulent moment, I believe it is important now more than ever to focus energies on invigorating public spaces for sharing, working with, and challenging one another. I give major thanks and respect to the Chrysler and the sculpture committee for developing just such a place. We are fortunate to have Tommy Fox’s bold work to remind us—right now and into uncertain times ahead—that we’re all just sprax and splox navigating the jumbo-wumbo together.