Ahead of its official opening on April 21, AN toured the luminescent Steven Holl Architects-designed Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. Though the ICA uses a simple material palette–zinc, raw concrete, translucent glass, and splashes of wood–it becomes more than the sum of its parts thanks to smart siting decisions that put natural light on display as much as the artwork.
The concept of the past, present and future mingling together informed the “branching paths” shape of the building, the dual entrances (one towards the VCU campus and the other towards the city itself) and the finish details. In Holl’s own words, the building was conceived as a nexus between past and future, with “forking time” as the project’s central design tenant. Across the 41,000-square-foot space, each of the three gallery spaces, one on each floor, extend and rotate as they rise.
From the exterior, the ICA can appear monolithic, as the distinction between its horizontal zinc panels and vertical frosted glass windows can disappear on cloudy days. At night the building glows from within and casts light from the ends of its rectangular volumes into the sculpture garden and the campus beyond.
The project sits on the northeastern corner of VCU’s campus, both on top of the historic Elba train station and next to Richmond’s busiest intersection. That embodied kinetic energy extends to the building itself and into dramatic upward-flowing curves, whether in the 33-foot-tall Royall Forum at the entrance or the 33-foot-tall True Farr Luck capstone gallery that’s bounded by a swooping arch.
Holl is obviously no stranger to designing light-filled art institutions; this year is the 20th anniversary of the semi-circular Kiasma Museum in Helsinki. As a result, the ICA is designed with exhibitions and flexibility in mind, from the terrazzo ground concrete floors to unfinished concrete-beam-ceilings, affording artists the chance to anchor pieces as they see fit.
It’s impossible to separate the institution from the art on display within. The ICA will hold no permanent collection and will instead feature rotating shows of various sizes throughout the year. Not having to worry about how light would affect the art afforded Holl the opportunity to design around the natural daylight cycle, instead of creating diffused, even light throughout.
The light from the skylights piercing the first and second-floor galleries ebbs and flows as the sun moves overhead. Many of the installations in the ICA’s inaugural exhibition, Declaration (an examination of how artists can address contemporary social issues), are arranged around these windows, using them as spotlights or for increased ambiance.
Nowhere is this usage of light more prominent than in the top-floor gallery, which is sandwiched between a wall of glass on the western front and an elevated window on the eastern side. Besides the space’s enormous height, the most striking feature is how the sun moves from one window to the next over the day, creating a dynamically-lit space that sheds new light on the oversized installations within, depending on what time of day it is.
The auditorium stands apart in its material palette, wrapped in cherry wood panels. The building also includes a sculpture garden and reflecting pool, and 8,000 square feet of greenery that covers three of the four gallery roofs. Sustainability considerations also factored heavily into the design, and the ICA is heated and cooled entirely through the use of 43 geothermal wells which radiate warmth up through the floor.
The $41 million building is designed to attract passerby with its ground-level clear glass facade at ground level and the zinc-clad building volume lifting up over the entranceway. It also happens to take on new shapes depending on which direction it’s approached from. While it might seem imposing from the sidewalk, visitors will find an organic, constantly changing embrace within.
Declaration will run from April 21, 2018, through September 9, 2018, and admission to the ICA is free.