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School for Visual Arts Offers Visual Appeal

Exterior rendering of the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts at the Unversity of Alabama at Birmingham
The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham features two “bar” buildings, one clad in brick, one in zinc, that rotate against each other. Visual work by Pirate Design

Comprising two long, stacked volumes that are turned with respect to one another, the new school of visual arts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham keeps gallery space and educational facilities distinct—but connected.

March 11, 2014—Though the University of Alabama at Birmingham traces its roots to the founding of a school for the medical arts—the Medical College of Alabama, established in 1859—the university’s newest building is a stunning gem that focuses squarely on a different sort of art. The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA), which opened in January, is home to the school’s art history department as well as its art galleries. Housing works ranging from Warhol prints to a Picasso lithograph, the facility will help anchor the campus’s burgeoning arts and culture district, which includes a humanities building and a performing arts complex.

The $12.5-million, 26,000 sq ft building was designed by Los Angeles-based architect Randall Stout, FAIA, LEED-AP, the president and principal-in-charge of Randall Stout Architects (RSA). After it secured the commission, RSA was required to submit three designs, an unusual but not unprecedented stipulation. “We might have chosen to do that anyway,” Stout notes. The architects had nearly finished the schematic design for the project by 2009, but the worsening economy prompted school officials to shelve the project. Planning for the museum didn’t resume until 2011.

The museum includes 3,330 sq ft of studio and classroom space, as well as studios for graphic design and such time-based media as videos or audio recordings. Inside are three galleries of different sizes. The largest will house rotating exhibitions, the medium-sized space will exhibit video and digital art, and the smallest will showcase faculty and student work. To reconfigure space, the museum uses rolling doors made of ¾ in. plywood that can pop into place, flush with the exhibit walls.

The basic concept of the design is two long “bar” buildings, one at ground level, one a floor above, that are rotated with respect to one another. The lower bar contains art galleries, public space, and space for receiving and handling. The upper bar houses the classrooms.

The two-bar design, Stout says, distinguished the academic and exhibition spaces well. “But it also unified them in a way, because of sculptural gestures we did and the way the interior spaces open up to one another. The interior is well knitted together, even though the exterior looks more like separate objects,” he says. 

Interior rendering of the Abroms-Engel Institute building, which displays a large atrium

The two floors of the Abroms-Engel Institute are knitted together
with a large atrium that rises 24 feet above the building. Visual
work by Randall Stout Archtiects, Inc.

Stout notes that it was important not to isolate faculty and students from the gallery, so the spaces are linked with a large vertical atrium. To make the proportions more dramatic, his firm carried the atrium upward to roughly 24 ft above the second story, in a form that contains a giant clerestory and resembles a rotating cube. “It really drills vertically through where the two buildings overlap,” he says.

The university required that half of the building’s exterior be clad in brick. Stout doesn’t usually use brick. “I kind of took it as a challenge: how can I deal with it differently?” His solution was to clad the lower level in a minimalist, single red color of brick and the upper level in zinc. Brick, or any type of masonry, is pretty straightforward, he says. “There are not many ways to turn the corner and make it look any more or less delicate,” he says. “It is what it is. It’s visually heavy, so it seemed like it belonged on the ground.”

On the other hand, zinc has a light visual quality about it, a sense, he says, that it “could almost defy gravity. It’s thin sheet metal. The detailing at the edges can be almost paper thin, in terms of how transitions are made. You can do very crisp transitions. For a piece that’s up in the air, that all seemed right.”

On the ground level, a glass-enclosed concourse leads visitors from the galleries to an outdoor sculpture garden. One side of the garden is framed by a slightly arcing brick wall that starts at the full-wall height of the first floor and tapers down to the size of a balustrade. The tapering was a way to modulate the space and link the building with a nearby performing arts center.

“When you left the galleries, you had this huge outdoor space to contend with,” Stout says. “That was one form of modulating space. The other form was the vertical move where the buildings overlap. As far as sculptural [elements], those were the two big moves.”

A 32 f t canopy extends out from the concourse and was tough to engineer. In an emailed response, Ron Lee, P.E., a principal of Saiful Bouqouet, the Pasadena-based structural engineering firm on the project, described the work. Because of the relative thinness of the two-way cantilever, which ends in a sharp knife edge, the framing of the entrance canopy was “quite challenging,” he said. “The canopy cantilevers over 30 feet in the east-west direction and over 10 feet beyond the glass wall in the north-south direction.

“Framing of the north-south cantilever consists of rolled wide-flange beams that support a parallel pair of fabricated trusses, shaped to conform to the finished canopy,” he explained. “The trusses, which cantilever 30 feet, are fabricated from hollow structural sections (top and bottom chords and vertical panels), and L-shaped diagonals. The uses of trusses took advantage of the full depth constraints to limit dead load and wind load deflections to within tolerable limits.”

That’s not the only place at which engineers had their work cut out for them. The second-story bar cantilevers above the first floor. “There’s a lot of magic going on there,” says Stout. “It’s not really as cantilevered as the images might appear.”

Stout explains that a large concrete shear wall is located behind a “glowing, translucent” stairwell. “Detailing it in that translucent material tricks your eye into thinking it’s an ephemeral, delicate thing, but inside it’s got massive structure,” Stout says.

That piece, he says, extends upward and then turns to go back down to the ground. Across from it there’s a bent piece that looks trapezoidal, fabricated in a translucent polycarbonate, and backlit. But there is a column inside that is hidden because of the odd-shaped exterior.

“Since the framing depth of the second floor was limited by the ceiling height of the Art Plaza,” Lee added “the second floor cantilevered framing is essentially hung from the cantilevered roof framing,” That framing, he explained, consists of field-spliced, 75 ft long, 40 in. deep beams.

The layout of the museum is designed for flexibility. Three doors lead from the concourse into the galleries. Curators can direct the flow of movement or, says Stout, “just leave it to the audience [to determine] how they want to engage and move through the spaces.”

The museum should also expand the horizons of the community. As Robert Palazzo, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, puts it, the AEIVA will provide the university and the city “with a new forum for the creation of original works of art, the exhibition of art, and the resulting intellectual exchange that is needed to achieve a comprehensive education.”



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