The fluid form of the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University features twisted horizontal and vertical planes and reflects the energy of one of Richmond’s busiest intersections. © Steven Holl Architects
Shaped like boxes twisted and stacked one upon the other, and infused with glass panels and cantilevered spaces, a new art museum in Richmond presented significant structural challenges.
January 22, 2013—With a structurally complex design courtesy of Steven Holl Architects, of New York City, the new Institute for Contemporary Art (ICU) at Virginia Commonwealth University should raise the profile of the university’s School of the Arts, already considered to be one of the top art schools in the United States.
The $32-million, 38,000 sq ft building is planned for the corner of two major thoroughfares near downtown Richmond: Broad Street, the city’s main east-west roadway, which connects the university to downtown, and Belvedere, a north-south street that offers access to two freeways. Chris McVoy, the senior partner at Steven Holl Architects, describes the area, at the eastern edge of the tree-lined Fan District, as both a “pivotal site between downtown and the campus” and a “somewhat vacant area in need of regeneration.”
Holl Architects is no stranger to art museum design. The firm’s work includes the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki as well as the light-infused Bloch Building Addition to the Beaux-Arts Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City. (See Civil Engineering magazine’s June 2009 feature article on the project, “Designed to a T.”)
The ICA project’s designers, led by McVoy and Steven Holl, AIA, the firm’s principal, worked through dozens of concepts as they refined a sophisticated set of ideas about both the nature of a contemporary art museum and how best to respond to the specifics of the site. McVoy says contemporary art is “moving in many different tracks and paths at the same time. It’s an expanding, unpredictable program. [The museum] needed flexible space but space that was strong enough to give the art—in whatever form it takes—a frame for viewing.”
At the same time, the firm intends the museum to be a catalyst for the larger community. The building consists of four galleries, an outdoor sculpture garden, a café, and a 247-seat performance space. Gallery 1 is a long rectangular box located at ground level; it forms one leg of a V, its opposite leg formed by the glass-enclosed café. Above gallery 1, but set off at an angle, is the shorter box that forms gallery 2, and above the café is gallery 3, which is also cantilevered from the structure below it. The two-story performance space is located behind the café. The glass-formed main entry space, dubbed the forum, extends two stories in height behind galleries 1 and 2. Above the forum is gallery 4, a vertical space that rises 36 ft and has an inward curving wall that is meant to challenge artists to envision new kinds of artwork.
A model of the planned museum shows galleries along two forking
corridors, meant to reflect the idea that there is no longer a single,
grand path in modern art, but many directions being pursued at once.
© Steven Holl Architects
At the corner of Broad and Belvedere, the building expresses a complex torsional form, a curving intersection where the large vertical entryway crosses with the horizontal lines of the performance space. The result is a striking, twisting form that reflects the energy of the adjacent intersection and creates a dramatic entry point to the campus, McVoy says.
The forum, which will flood the interior with natural light, is meant to be a space where the energy of the street meets the energy of the art, McVoy says. The space is large enough to hold events or installations, sculptures, or projections. The forum will be accessible both from the Broad-Belvedere intersection and from the quieter, campus-facing sculpture garden.
The dramatic torqueing of the building’s exterior is also visible inside. “We don’t build simple volumes and put sculptural form on top of them,” McVoy says. “The interior is, in a way, more important than the exterior. The building should feel even more dynamic when you enter it than from the outside.”
The building’s interior splits the galleries along two intersecting axes, which Holl Architects refer to as “Forking Time.” Visually it’s a simple enough idea: a pair of two-story, cantilevered halls on the building’s west side frame the garden in a V shape. Philosophically, the building is reflecting the idea that there’s no longer a single, linear grand narrative in art, one style or movement giving way to another. Now there are multiple paths being pursued at once.
A dramatic stair, dubbed the “Plane of the Present,” separates the galleries from the forum space and helps accent the shift in time that the galleries are meant to convey. “As you’re moving from city into forum, you’re in the present moment, the time of the city and daily life,” McVoy explains. “When you enter into the galleries, you’re in that time of the artist, or that medium, or that direction of art.”
But these design goals posed practical challenges. The torqued intersection presents an unusual load case, and the forking galleries are designed as cantilevered structures. Structural engineers with Robert Silman Associates, also headquartered in New York City, modeled the building in three dimensions to track the load forces. “We jokingly have on the wall a series of pictures that ask the other engineers, ‘Find the load path,’” says Vassil Draganov, P.E., a principal of Robert Silman Associates. “This is really that kind of project: Find where the load goes. There are multiple load paths. It’s not straightforward.”
The engineers, he says, worked out a system of walls situated atop one another at intersecting points to allow the museum’s “unique geometry” to be constructed. Throughout the building, there are often places where there’s no straight line from roof to ground, yet substantial loads are present. In some cases, he explains, “you have two walls at some angles that intersect at a point, where loads are transferred from the upper level down. In some cases gravity loads create overturning of the structure.” A series of transfer structures will solve the problem, Dragonov says. The engineers also relied on the three-dimensional stiffness of the structure itself to resist some torsional forces, and on shear walls to resist not only lateral loads (which might become significant in the event of an earthquake), but also gravity forces generated by the eccentricities of the floors.
The sculpture garden offers a calm connection to the rest of the
campus. Planes of “obscured glass” may be utilized to showcase
video art. © Steven Holl Architects
The walls will be primarily of cast-in-place concrete, and the flooring will be a combination of precast concrete planks and cast-in-place concrete. Draganov says precast flooring was chosen for floors that are 30 to 40 ft above any other surface, creating a challenge for formwork builders. In a few instances where the spans are too great and deflection and vibration requirements will exceed the capability of the concrete planks alone, steel beams will be used.
The building, expected to achieve a platinum rating in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), will be heated and cooled with geothermal wells, and will feature green roofs to absorb rainwater. The concrete will provide sound insulation from the street as well durability and thermal mass, and glass cavity walls will, according to the architects, modulate natural light, exhaust heat in the summer, and harness heat in the winter.
The ICA is expected to open in 2015. In an email, Joe Seipel, the dean of VCU’s School of the Arts, said the museum will be privately funded and that construction will begin once all funds have been raised. He says the campaign is more than halfway to its goal.
The ICA project seeks to position itself outside the standard debate that has emerged over art museum architecture in the last 15 years, namely, should a museum function as an art object itself that may overwhelm the art, or should it demure? McVoy says the firm believes this is a false dichotomy. There are no really neutral background buildings, he says—even the most nondescript museum can end up overwhelming the art with its homogeneity and repetition. On the other hand, “You can have a dynamic architecture that’s a work of art in its own right that entirely supports the encounter between the visitor and the artwork,” he says.
It helps, of course, if your structural team is ready to go along for the ride. “Not all our projects are like that,” Dragonov says. “You’d go crazy if all your stuff was like that. But a fair amount of our stuff is of this caliber, and we love this kind of stuff.
“You have to suspend your ego,” he adds, “and follow the architect, and try to suspend disbelief for a good amount of time until a workable solution is found,” says Draganov, on the challenge of bringing Holl’s complex ideas to life. “You suspend that disbelief, go along, and try your best; the reward is on the other side. The architect sees that you’ve contributed to achieving their idea.”