I have walked the Downtown Mall several times a day for the past year in my job at C-VILLE, but I have seldom noticed the disrepair of its 32-year-old bricks. I suppose I have tripped over a loose brick a couple times, or spotted a lady in high heels getting stuck in one of the grooves in between many of the bricks.
Apparently, enough people have had this happen that the city is poised to rebrick the entire Mall—150,000 square feet for $7.5 million—and the notion has some residents spouting accusations of blasphemy and extravagance.
Architect and UVA professor Bill Morrish, who worked with Halprin on the original design, says that rebricking the Mall could be like remastering a classic album.
At a meeting on June 30, several people objected to the plan to replace the current bricks with a slightly larger version that is not sealed by mortar—as the bricks were more than 30 years ago—but pressed flush against each other, bonded only by sand. Even though the original mortar has in places eroded and exposed finger-wide gaps between the bricks, the new idea is not exactly like the original and thus borders on heresy, say some.
Then there were the naysayers—seated in the back of the room naturally—who see the rebricking of the Mall as sheer governmental waste, accomplished through some sort of deception.
Two other residents rose to express dismay at the overall cost of the project, and challenged them to help the homeless instead.
“I know they’re homeless, but they shouldn’t be treated as cityless,” Raymond Mason said, chastising Charlottesville for turning its back “on the people that need the city benefits the most.” Wild applause erupted. “A public space should be for everybody, not just those with money to spend.”
One of the night’s more pointed public speakers came near the end of the two-hour session. “It’s time for us to do what we have to do with the Mall,” said Morgan Perkins, owner of Sage Moon Gallery. “Patching the bricks is not working.”
“Yeah, we’re in hard times,” she conceded, but then appealed to business reason. If the Mall continues in its current state of disrepair, business is likely to plummet, she argued. New bricks mean new life.
A noted absence in the packed city space was the designer of the original Mall, 92-year-old Lawrence Halprin, who lives in California. He was invoked through the night, and though he wasn’t there, Bill Morrish was. He was introduced at the beginning of the meeting as a designer who worked on the original Downtown Mall with Halprin. “I was a child engineer,” he said to laughter and then sat down.
As citizen after citizen walked to the microphone to object to some facet of the rebricking, Morrish appeared amused.
In the mid-1970s, Morrish was a young architect with Halprin’s firm when he was brought in near the end of the Downtown Mall’s design phase. Morrish is now a UVA professor and celebrated architect himself, hailed by The New York Times in 1994 as “the most valuable thinker in urbanism today.”
“Halprin was interested in a continuous surface that promotes social and public activity,” he says. “He wasn’t looking at creating a historic plaza. His detail was the people.”
As such, Morrish says a new brick surface actually makes more sense without mortar separating it. “A flush edge would be more continuous.”
For Morrish, the rebricking offers an opportunity to get back to the urban architect’s original intent. According to his logic, rebricking the Mall is a lot like remastering an old album and reissuing it on compact disc with bonus tracks three decades later.
“It’s an opportunity to reinaugurate the Mall,” he says. “We have to revive these things.”
City Council will vote on whether to fund the five-month overhaul later this month.
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