Institute for Contemporary Art / Steven Holl Architects
Steven Holl Architects’ Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University makes for a striking formal composition, with the cool transparency of its faceted volumes thrown into sharp relief against the red and beige brickwork of downtown Richmond. Forming less of a ‘bridge,’ and more of a portal between the city and the University, the past and future, the Institute for Contemporary Art celebrates the transformative capacities and responsibilities of art and architecture.
The Institute for Contemporary Art is clad in glass and titanium-zinc panels, and is comprised of exhibition galleries, offices, classrooms, a café, retail-spaces, a 240-seat auditorium, an outdoor theatre, a garden and a ‘thinking’ field. Designed to function as a new gateway to the University, the collection of rectilinear and triangulated volumes, and planar and curved surfaces creates an intriguing and incongruous landmark amidst the aged facades of Broad and Belvidere Streets in Richmond’s downtown area.
New York and Beijing-based Steven Holl architects’ design for the Institute for Contemporary Art is ambitious, reflecting an equally ambitious brief; it is at once tasked with creating a new gateway to the Virginia Commonwealth University precinct and also with reimagining the ‘white cube’ gallery typology in the changing face of contemporary art. As such, spaces have been designed not only to accommodate the exhibition of works of all mediums, but also to cultivate contemplation, learning and the exchange of ideas.
Materially, there are clear resonances between Steven Holl’s Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, and one of the architects’ other recently completed projects, Maggie’s Centre Barts in London; both exploit tensions between transparency and opacity with their use of translucent glass panels, although the latter mentioned project arguably exhibits a more explicit formal relationship with the fabric of its architectural context, with the horizontal orientation of framed glass gesturing to the coursework of adjacent masonry. Conversely, the Institute for Contemporary Art sits conspicuously amidst its neighbours, signalling new possibilities for the urban, downtown landscape.
Environmentally, the Institute for Contemporary Art has been calibrated to capitalise on natural light and rainwater harvesting. Green roofs line the gallery volumes, with plantings of drought-resistant native plants, and abundant apertures concealed within the almost undifferentiated facade reduce dependence on artificial light, whilst geothermal wells and cavity walls moderate the building’s heating and cooling requirements.
One of the foremost underlying concepts behind Steven Holl Architects’ design for the Institute for Contemporary Art is that of “forking time” — the notion of concurrent parallel times, as opposed to the “grand narrative” of conventional history. This concept — “forking time” — is intersected by another; the “plane of the present,” establishing a dialogue between the present and the potential contained within each moment. Architecturally, this concept is manifested in the flexibility of the gallery spaces, attempting to keep apace with the ever-changing face of contemporary art.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s new gateway building quietly embodies a glowing sense of dynamism and possibility. Succinctly and clearly summing up the ambitions for the Institute for Contemporary Art, Steven Holl has said, “We designed the ICA to be a flexible, forward-looking instrument that will both illuminate and serve as a catalyst for the transformative possibilities of contemporary art.”