The busy intersection of Belvidere Street and West Broad Street in Richmond, Va., gained a serene new retreat today, with the public opening of the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the 41,000-square-foot ICA acts as a gateway between VCU’s campus and the surrounding city. Standing 72 feet tall at the corner, the ICA confronts the intersection with a torqued façade clad in curving zinc panels that SHA design partner Chris McVoy, AIA, compares to the work of sculptor Naum Gabo. “The complex geometry turns itself into the rectilinear frame of the city,” McVoy says. “We bring it so that every corner is right on the street edge. That gives it a kind of urban frame to the building.”
Once inside, visitors from the school or general public face a different sort of intersection: A series of pathways that splay out from the entry hall and disperse visitors into the museum in a concept that Steven Holl, FAIA, and McVoy refer to as “forking time.” This narrative from the New York- and Beijing-based firm is one that has persisted since the design’s unveiling back in 2012, and McVoy credits the client’s clear vision as well as the studio’s six months of design development after winning the commission in 2011 as the reasons behind the project’s consistency from initial concept through to completion.
Spatially, this idea begins in the ICA’s entry forum: A 33-foot-tall lobby accessible from each of the bordering busy streets, as well as via a garden on the campus side. “The forum is very porous horizontally,” McVoy says. “In this building, you’re going from one realm to another. The portal for that has to be both seamless and apparent.” From here, visitors can “fork” to several spaces on the ground floor: a café, a 240-seat auditorium, and a gallery.
At the stair landing on the second level, visitors enter a gallery space that splits off in two directions, a move that allows the institution the flexibility to house one large or two separate exhibitions in the space. These galleries feature an eight-inch thick concrete hybrid diaphragm structure that allows the bar-like volumes to be self-supporting; the thick walls have the additional benefit of acoustically shielding the galleries from street noise.
As a non-collecting institution, the ICA will play host to a variety of installations and performances, and that’s part of what intrigues McVoy, who speaks of the third-floor gallery—the largest in the building—as “a provocation for artists to engage.” With translucent, double-paned glass on the east and west walls and a 33-foot-tall vaulted ceiling, “it’s an open-ended space,” McVoy says. “We don’t know what the future of artworks would be. To have a space that’s site-specific is another form of flexible instrument.”
The ICA anticipates LEED Gold certification, and features green roofs for the rectilinear galleries as well as permeable landscape with drought-tolerant native plants. The building’s radiant heating and cooling is fueled by a system of 43 geothermal wells, and ample daylighting through skylights in the galleries.
Today’s public opening of the ICA is part of a busy year for SHA: In addition to breaking ground on two other university projects—the Winter Visual Arts Center at Franklin & Marshall, and Rubenstein Commons at Princeton—SHA will open the Glassell School of Art in Houston this summer, and recently won the commission for the Collector's Museum in Angers, France.