Architect ‘touches the fabric of the city with his heart’


To see Will Scribner’s monument, look around metropolitan Richmond.

The Greater Richmond Convention Center, the United Network for Organ Sharing building with its National Donor Memorial, the Turning Basin Building, VCU’s Gladding Residence Hall, the Luck Stone Corp. headquarters, the University of Richmond’s Weinstein Hall and now the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ expansion are just some of the architectural projects on which Scribner and his colleagues at SMBW Architects have put their seal.

When Scribner came to Richmond in 1971, fresh out of the University of Virginia’s architecture school, he dreamed of designing a remarkable new building that people would come to see as much for the building itself as for what was in it.

“To be able to play a small part in this Virginia Museum of Fine Arts experience was a fulfillment of that,” Scribner said.

With the much-heralded $150 million Virginia Museum project, the vision became real last fall when the museum opened its new wing to an enthusiastic public.

Handling the museum’s technical aspects, SMBW was the executive architect on the project, working with Rick Mather of London, who did the conceptual design.

“The life of the executive architect is to handle 50 percent of the work,” Scribner said, “and 120 percent of the headaches.”

The new building has energized the Richmond art scene.

“It’s already been accepted as a tremendous addition to the world of museum architecture,” said Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s director. “The real measure is the visitors we’ve had from across the country and across the globe who have literally found it to be a work of art in itself.”

Said Scribner, “In many ways, great and small, that’s what good architecture does.”

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Farther afield, his Richmond-based firm collaborated in 2005-08 with the faculty of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture on two well-received additions to the school. “It has transformed the life of the school,” said U.Va. architecture professor William Sherman, who worked on the design with SMBW.

Similarly, SMBW’s 2005 design for Luck Stone’s $25 million expansion of its Goochland County headquarters was aimed directly at changing its culture, the company said, encouraging collaboration and innovation through a transformed work environment.

“It’s really one of the most inspirational places I’ve ever worked in or been in,” said Luck Stone executive Anderson McNeill. “The positive impact that building had has far exceeded the initial expectations.”

And in Salem, SMBW’s international award-winning Belvedere Gardens Mausoleum has become a community focal point, providing an atmosphere of spiritual reflection and respect for life’s natural order in the Southwest Virginia mountains.

Groups come to the mausoleum in Sherwood Memorial Park to mark solemn moments, brides use the site for wedding pictures, veterans visit on ceremonial occasions, and architecture students troop through to study SMBW’s work, said Susan Mini, the cemetery’s president and CEO.

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SMBW is a relatively small firm — 16 architects, landscape architects and interior designers — working out of a former paper warehouse in Manchester, but it has had outsized impact on Richmond and Virginia life, frequently winning state and national awards for its work.

Scribner himself has received the Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects’ highest award, given for lifetime achievement, while SMBW has been awarded the state society’s top honor for its record of distinguished architecture.

At the same time, he said, “I’ve done my share of shopping centers and suburban office buildings.”

Although much of SMBW’s work is Modernist, Scribner noted, “we’re not driven by a particular style.”

“For us,” he said, “it’s about a design process rooted in thorough research, understanding the client’s concerns and being wholeheartedly engaged in the client’s mission.”

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Besides his firm’s building and landscape projects, Scribner also has put his mark on the capital city in its planning activities.

As chairman of the Richmond City Planning Commission in late 1990s, he helped lead the development of a new downtown master plan, one that envisioned the now-completed regional convention center, the new federal district courts building and the performing arts district.

“It’s the machinery of local government and the citizenry at its most fundamental,” he said of his work on the Planning Commission, “and it’s dealing with issues that have lasting impact on the community and the quality of people’s lives.”

A key accomplishment of his time as chairman of Richmond’s Public Arts Committee in the 1990s, Scribner said, was working to establish the city’s Percent for the Arts Program, which called for funds to place art works in municipal buildings.

One of strengths of Scribner and SMBW is their ability to work fruitfully with partners, clients and colleagues say. “Will and the others at SMBW have been able to find that balance between confidence in their own ideas and working with others,” U.Va.’s Sherman said.

Scribner’s gift for bringing people with differing ideas together came to the fore on the Virginia Museum project, Nyerges said.

At times during the project’s development, “the tension in the room was so thick you could cut it with a knife,” the museum director said. However, “when Will entered the picture … his very soft-spoken but firm approach helped to smooth out the process.”

Of the SMBW firm, Scribner said, “Everybody else here works on buildings. My major design project is the firm itself.”

“I have never thought of this as ‘my’ firm,” said Scribner, who lives in Richmond’s North Side and comes from a family of architects in Charlottesville. “It is the work of great people, creative minds and many hands, faithfully pursued over nearly two decades.”

His goal, he said, is “to have the privilege of surrounding myself with talented and inspiring co-workers … and encourage them to do good work.”

And Scribner has been successful at it. “He’s really … a true mentor,” said his business partner, Lou Wolf.

He is a guest lecturer at Virginia Tech and U.Va., teaching portions of the graduate professional-practice class.

Randolph-Macon College sociology professor Elizabeth A. Gill brings students taking her death and dying course to UNOS’ National Donor Memorial in downtown Richmond.

“It’s a rather unique style of memorialization,” Gill said of SMBW’s design. “It’s a journey from death into life.”

The designers had “a particular burden to bear,” she said: “They had to give meaning and purpose to loss.”

The memorial has special significance for her, Gill said, because she made the decision to donate her deceased brother’s organs. The Donor Memorial “really captured what my experience had been of that time in my life.”

SMBW’s Convention Center is at the center of Jack Berry’s work as executive director of the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors’ Bureau.

“Will Scribner touches the fabric of the city with his heart,” Berry said. “We’re very fortunate to have someone with his talent.”