“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


StudioAmmons submitted a proposal over a year ago for the redesign of the historic Seventeenth Street or First Market Square in Shockoe Bottom. The members of Urbanismo were closely involved in the preparation of the detailed plan for the redefinition of a great urban place.  We publish the proposal now in the hope that it will help to clarify widely-held concerns about the City’s recently published Ballpark plan. The baseball stadium was not part of the “First Market Square” proposal originally solicited by the city. We are convinced that the ballpark plan will negatively affect the quality of the Market Square and its neighborhood.

StudioAmmons’ proposal is intended to revitalize the First Market Square by ensuring that it will serve the city in multiple ways:
  • as an active framework for urban life
  • as an engaging and flexible public place
  • as an attraction in its own right to increase tourist visitation to the neighborhood
  • as a catalyst for the relocation of small business to the area, including artists, creative businesses, and restaurants 
  • as an embodiment of the local ethos to ensure longterm vitality

The Public Square and the City

Planners have recognized the economic and cultural potential associated with healthy civic places. The reclamation of outdoor public places is increasingly emphasized by advocates of thriving and healthy American cities. Most city squares ceased to function in the latter part of the twentieth century as urban centers declined, traditional community activities slowed, and commercial functions moved to the suburbs. More importantly, the loss of public space for assembly, socializing, and reflection has resulted in an impoverishment of civic life. The failure of many large-scale rehabilitation projects to fully realize their part in the public realm results from an emphasis on economic development without consideration of the direct benefit public places can provide to the community as incubators of the civic good.

As stated in the Shockoe Economic Revitalization Strategy of 2011, a major goal of the new First Market Square should be “reinforcing Main Street Station’s position as an epicenter driving the culture, creativity and identity” of the Shockoe neighborhood. The market, by incorporating flexible programming, top-notch design values, and ‘round-the-clock scheduling, should be a catalyst for the success of the larger neighborhood. A fully functioning square could underline the kinds of urbane values conducive to the creative entrepreneurship that has already transformed the Shockoe area into a dynamic place to live and work.

Essential to the long-term success of any commercially-oriented public precinct, such as a market square, is its adaptability over time and under unpredictable economic conditions. Large static developments undertaken by direct public or private investment are particularly liable to loss of market share over time as the infrastructure deteriorates and the inflexibility of programming prevents them from adapting to changing circumstances. A highly structured project like the network of proposals associated with the Shockoe Bottom Baseball Stadium will actually undermine public values over its limited lifetime. The fine grain of the traditional city, in contrast, permits countless quick adaptations at each cumulative sign of cultural and economic change. Richmond’s First Market has survived two centuries of flooding and cyclical change by relying on this kind of nimble adaptation.

Sanborn Map of First Market Square, 1887. Main Street is at the left and Grace Street
to the right. The main Market Hall faced Main Street. The archway between 

segments of the Public Market is shown spanning Arch Alley midway 
between Main and Franklin streets. Note the narrowing of Market Square 
that occurs north of Franklin.  

Place, Form, and Meaning

As we have explored in detail in this post, the proposed First Market Square represents the sixth intervention at the site of Richmond’s historic city market. From its earliest days on the bank of Shockoe Creek, the City Market has been an accretionary, transformative place, changing its character with the changing shape of the city. The Market Square was originally placed on the edge of the settlement. One contemporary remembered the “green pasture” of the town's Common, which extended from the Market House down to Shockoe Creek. Eventually the area around the market was lined with shops and it took on a more enclosed form. Like its predecessors in Europe, Richmond's First Market Square embeds centuries of change and growth, although over time it assumed the form of a conventional enclosed square. In fact, American public places like First Market Square have traditionally embodied the kinds of urbane social and economic values that we usually associate with European plazas. 

The market, which began in the half-block between Main Street and Arch (Walnut) Alley, was extended over time as far as Grace Street, two blocks to the north. In this it showed similarities to markets which extend along the center of widened streets such as those in Charleston and Philadelphia. The First Market buildings, as they were extended along this armature, embodied their functions in a hierarchical manner, diminishing in scale and elaboration as the shopper moved away from Main Street, from a butchers' hall to an open produce shed, and so on to ranks of pushcarts filled with farm products. The Market Square was eventually surrounded by brick buildings housing grocers and butchers' shops. As time passed, the dynamic nature of the market, changing in response to shifting economic forces, resulted in a gradual replacement of most of the early shops with a layered mixture of commercial buildings of every period and style. 

Guiding Ideas

The Urban Scale

Urban Scale Architecture is design at the level of the city at large. Design at this scale gives form and direction to the urban fabric. It supports the importance of living in community. 

Saverio Muratori and his school, including Mario Gallerati, have explored the meaning of “architettura a scala urbana.” According to this approach to urban morphology, fully developed cities operate on four scales, the territorial, the urban, the aggregate, and the building. Architecture at the urban scale is manifested in at least three ways: (1) by the provision of specialized buildings to serve the civic life, (2) by the placement of these buildings in relation to each other on a scale larger than that of the urban fabric, and (3) by a deliberate overlay of serial, rhythmic design to unify the urban tissue.  

According to urban historian Carroll William Westfall, design at the urban scale serves the city by underlining a hierarchy in which the civic life takes precedence over the private. It is the elements of design at the urban scale that make cities not only meaningful but legible, even after centuries of alterations and more recent decades of forgetfulness and crisis.  The most important public places receive the highest levels of ornament and the most thorough treatment. Public architecture can make sense of the city for its users by clarifying the political, social, commercial, and civic order by which the inhabitants strive together to live the best life.

A Market Square

Richmond’s redesigned First Market Square, without its current central market structure, will be transformed into an urban form at once new and familiar. The building walls that define the square will become more obviously the boundaries of a great urban room, and the central area will be less clearly defined. The square will be more clearly rectangular and the missing building fabric at the north end will be more obvious. The greater width of Seventeenth Street along the eastern side will make it harder to unify the space.

The City has made it clear that the new First Market Square will function in a dual role: civic space and market space. This double role is informed by a further requirement that the square serve as an attractor for tourism and the arts. The civic function will be accommodated by a provision of an open area for larger gatherings and festivals, as well as a potential for subdivision at times for use by outdoor cafes, small groups, and individuals.

Looking south along the market stalls flanked by planted margins and shaded by trees.

A Market

The square will function as a market at specified times each week. A miniature street grid of temporary canopies will be set up either in the main plaza or in a subsection reserved for more diverse activities. It is also probably desirable to provide for the regular stall holders who are at the market on most days. To provide for a year-round market and close off the north end of the square, StudioAmmons suggests placing a new Market Hall on the original part of the square that extends north of Franklin Street to Grace Street, now a city-owned parking lot, but once part of the market square.

One of the key characteristics of the historic First Market was the way its form changed and diminished as it proceeded to the north. The site retains clues indicating the value to designers of reasserting the progressive nature of movement through the square. The crossing point of Arch (or Walnut) Alley, the cobblestone alley that bisects the Market Square at mid-point, served as a telling division for the first architectural transformation from a two-story to a one-story market building. The extraordinary bell tower arch that spanned the alley and gave it its name provides a built-in opportunity for place-making that is built into the site.

Open to Traffic

It is essential to the square that it retain its historic articulation into both traffic and marketplace zones. Historic curbs and spallstone paving enhance its definition as an historic part of the city. Pedestrianization does not reinforce commercial success. Vehicles (both cars and delivery trucks) and people are part of the urban environment and can be integrated into the square in ways that promote a sense of safety and a necessary level of activity. It will be important to come up with strategies to integrate traffic, parking, and foot traffic with the special activities characteristic of this public square. This can be done by prohibiting vehicular traffic at certain times of the day and week while retaining the minimal differentiation of street, sidewalk, and plaza paving.

Street Lighting

Streetlighting will be completely redesigned based on what has proved effective in other successful plazas. Richmond historic precedent should be followed as closely as possible to avoid the generic quality typical of many urban projects. This would indicate small, pedestrian-scaled streetlights augmented by gaslight-style lanterns attached to buildings at corners and along the sidewalks to add warmth and character. Moonlighting, used in New York’s Bryant Park, could be employed to create an attractive wash of light over the central portion of the square. 


Permanent furniture should be avoided as limiting flexibility, and instead temporary furniture, including market stalls, seats, tables, planters, and cafe dividers, should be used wherever possible. Low steps, placed so as to avoid serving as barriers to mobility, provide effective seating for visitors.

A Fountain and a Bell

The city's first public fountain, piped from a spring on Libbie Hill, stood in the Market Square. Like the fountains in many historic European markets, a new fountain should probably be placed off-center to permit flexible use of the square and to enhance the perspective of views from the fountain. The basin should be raised on a stepped base to enhance seating. The market bell, which survives in the current market shed, marked opening and closing times and raised the alarm in case of a fire or other emergency. The market bell should be suitably housed in the marketplace and should once again sound the hours.

Overview of the Design

The analysis of the form and history of First Market Square suggests several design ideas capable of a range of alternative expressions: 

(1) First of all, the urban ensemble might mimic the progressive formal transformations that were experienced by the historic visitor in moving from south to north. This shading of form could be implemented in a number of ways:

    • a central circulation spine could recall the market aisle that ran for nearly two blocks. 
    • the half of the square south of Arch Alley could be kept clear of permanent structures and plantings for the purpose of concerts and other gatherings
    • the northern half of the square could be provided with plantings, providing diffused shade as well as stormwater management. 
(2) Squares from the time of the Renaissance have often gained aesthetic depth and clarity of purpose from internal subdivisions. The loggia form, with its capacity of openness and shelter from the weather, has been associated with markets, including Richmond's First Market, since ancient times. An arcaded structure (loggia) at the central point would not only recall the former archway, but would serve as an engaging market-themed focal point to attract the attention of passers-by. 

Such a structure would, at the same time: 

    • form a gateway to a temporary enfilade of market tents 
    • make a crossing point for the alley 
    • serve as a platform for overlooking or lighting the square
    • creates an opportunity to apply a different character to the northern and southern halves of the square without losing a sense of the whole. 
    • provide shelter during bad weather 
    • serve as an event backdrop

(3) It is important to emphasize that the buildings, not the streets, form the edge of the square. This can be emphasized by blending the paving materials so that the textures and colors minimize the difference between the streets and the central part of the square. For instance, the central area could be paved in granite spallstone in a contrasting pattern, while the brick paving of the sidewalks would be maintained to form a outside border. In the same way, placing most of the streetlights and other furniture along the sidewalks, rather than in the center, will visually confirm the full width of the square. Finally, widening the sidewalk on the east side of the square by 10–12 feet would diminish the apparent width of that street and provide space for outdoor cafes without sacrificing a lane of parking, a key to the success of small businesses around the square.

(4) The essence of a traditional square or piazza is its sense of enclosure, forming what some historians of the city refer to as an “urban room.” Most American squares fail in this regard because they are too large or too open at the corners. The vacancy at the north end of First Market Square will become much more apparent once the existing market shed is removed. This “leaky” north end will make it difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill the promise of the square as an “urban room.” This would be an excellent place to put a new public building. 

A new market building, reminiscent of the old First Market Hall, could be added in a later phase. With an open first floor, it would meet flood control regulations by allowing water to flow through its arcades. A new First Market Hall would permit a more powerful connection with the form of the historic market, reinforcing the sense of place by firmly grounding the square in the local context.


The rehabilitation of First Market Square presented here is intended to be lively, flexible, engaging, and sustainable. In summary, we propose the following interventions:

  • A wide, open plaza at the south half of the square which:
    • permits complete flexibility
    • houses movable furniture for cafes and visitor seating
    • features a broad central area of smooth flagstone
    • has aisles along the sides paved with spallstone to match the adjacent streets
    • has a sunken area in front of the central loggia defining a projecting apron or stage
  • Stone paving designed to reinforce the shape of the market as defined by the building walls on three sides, not by the curbing around the central plaza.
  • A central arched element (loggia) which will:
    • form a focal point when seen from the Main Street
    • serve as a focus and crossing point for Arch (Walnut) Alley
    • recall the archway that formerly spanned the alley midway along the market.
    • provide a backdrop for concerts and other productions taking place in the square
    • separate the square into hierarchical sections with distinct functions and shared forms
    • be small enough not to interrupt the flow of the eye along the full length of the square
    • use forms traditionally associated with markets
    • recall the tripartite form of the Market Hall of 1794
  • A widened sidewalk on the east side of the market will permit outdoor dining. 
  • A green northern half, with a central walk flanked by plantings along the sides, which:
    • is structured to contain temporary market stalls and other uses on specified days
    • permits sustainable plantings to help control conventional water runoff
    • accommodates shade trees along the sides as well as informal seating in the shade
  • An off-center fountain south of the loggia which:
    • recalls the historic early public water source at the market square
    • provides a focal point for seating
    • imparts the refreshing sound and sight of moving water
  • An optional short market shed building extending north of the loggia which could provide a shaded area during the day for regular stall holders and shelter during rainy weather for visitors.
Digital and watercolor renderings by Bay Koulabdara and Richard Worsham 
for StudioAmmons, 2012-2013


  1. Richmond has so many jewels in the rough that only need the proper nurturing and polishing to become unique ornaments to the city and the Commonwealth. This plan would make a dramatic and revitalizing impact on Shockhoe Bottom.

  2. Mr. Sharp: Thanks very much. You use a very appropriate metaphor for what should be happening whenever decisions are made that involve the fabric of our city. And it begins with what our colleague from Genoa, Mario Gallarati, refers to as "la consapevolezza del preesistente"-- the awareness of (or concern for) the pre-existant.