The Markel Potato

I live in the Richmond, VA area and I have occasion, from time to time, to head to Willow Lawn, the location of what is arguably the coolest building in the entire city.

I say “arguably” because certain publications/thought-leaders in architecture have said, without a doubt, that the building in question is one of the ugliest in the nation. But to Hell with them, this is my blog, and I say it’s the best. You don’t like it, get your own blog.

You can see it from Broad Street and several streets around the building. It’s huge. If you weren’t ready for it, you might think it’s a spaceship or the headquarters of some sinister organization. But no.

This…is the Markel Building.

First, you notice its strange exterior. It’s hand-pounded aluminum siding, wrapped all around a three-tier, tapered layer cake of an office building. Inside are marketing companies and insurance companies and doctors’ offices and whatever you might find in a standard Brutalist office building. But instead, you find them in this gorgeous, hulking, Mid-Century Modern masterpiece.

As a student of 99 Percent Invisible, the podcast that deals in design, art, and architecture around the world, I keep the words of host Roman Mars close to my heart:

Always Read the Plaque.

Whenever you encounter a statute, a building, a major structure, a rural highway, and there is a plaque, you read it. Full stop. The plaque was put there for a reason and it’s usually full of fascinating information. The plaque for the Markel Building is absolutely no exception:

For those of you who can’t make out the text, I’ll reproduce it here:

The Markel Corporation commissioned architect Haig Jamgochian, a Richmond native, to design their headquarters in 1962. The aluminum clad conical structure was inspired by a baked potato wrapped in foil served to Jamgochian while attending an American Institute of Architect’s dinner. Each floor consists of a single piece of 535-foot aluminum. They are the longest unbroken pieces of aluminum ever used as siding material. Jamgochian personally sledge-hammered crinkles into the 3rd floor siding before contractors finished the job on the other two floors in 1965. The building is a unique architectural example of its era.

The bold emphasis there is mine. This concept for this building was born of a baked potato. HOW CAN ANYONE NOT LOVE THIS BUILDING?! I’ve already been very clear that I’m a potato at heart…so is this building. Is this building my building-persona?

I did a tad more digging, and it made me both terribly sad and incredibly happy. From this very thorough article in Atlas Obscura:

Ugly or inspired, the Markel Building is undeniably unique—Jamgochian designed only one other building, and it is no longer in existence. The other was a residence called “The Moon House,” a bullet-proof glass structure with a crescent moon-shaped roof. The house was commissioned by a paranoid used car salesman named Mad Man Dapper Dan, who was also known in some circles by his true name, Howard Hughes. The Moon House was bought and razed by a developer in 2005, making the Markel Building Jamgochian’s single existing piece of work. 

What a heartbreaking thing to learn: that this crazy potato building is the only building that Jamgochian, who died in 2019, had left to his name. If the goal of architecture is eternity, it’s my sincere hope that the Markel building achieves it.

Why? Why am I so drawn to this building? Simple: it’s so different from everything around it. Willow Lawn isn’t brimming with architectural marvels. Many of the buildings are holdovers of the 90s obsession with small, boxy, utilitarian stores and shops. There are a few interesting choices happening near the mall, where retail clings to life and tries to make storefronts aesthetically-appealing in the hopes of generating foot traffic. There are many older buildings being retrofitted to suit new businesses and restaurants and start-ups. But the Markel building still stands, daring everyone not to love it, not to hate it, just to look. Just look.

There it is. It’s round and crinkly and it looks like a potato wrapped in aluminum foil. The parking is confusing and inaccessible. The hallways can be confusing until you realize you just need to keep going, they’re circular, you’ll get your bearings. It’s not a very “Richmond” building. It doesn’t fit in, but if it was taken away and replaced with yet another four story brick crackerbox, the city’s soul would suffer. I know I’d be heartbroken. This building means so much to be, a simple reminder that:

  • Inspiration can come from anywhere
  • Cities are starved for character and could always use more
  • We need to celebrate the amazing places that make up our everyday lives
  • I really like a nice baked potato but I never really seem to make a great one at home