RICHMOND — Even if you don’t recognize the hallmarks of architect Steven Holl’s style, you could probably identify his new Markel Center on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus. It is a glass- and zinc-clad structure that plays subtle games with boxes and angled forms, presenting a dramatic trapezoid of frosted glass to announce its entrance and atrium space. There is nothing like it anywhere else in Richmond, and it presents a striking contrast with the rest of the VCU campus, a messy urban environment of brick structures, dispiriting, corporate-style academic architecture of the 1970s, and acres of generic infill from recent years.
Holl has built an extensive portfolio of museum and gallery designs, including new structures and sensitive additions such as the quiet cascade of glowing pavilions he designed as expansion space for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. He is the architect behind the Kennedy Center expansion, now under construction and scheduled to open in 2019. And he has fashioned a vibrant international career with a dynamic hybrid of modernism and organic elements, often finding compelling middle ground between seeming opposites, the cold and the warm, the straight line and the curve, the rigidly geometric and the sculpturally improvisational.
The Markel Center, home to VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art, does all those things, though not so well as other Holl projects. Three of its four sides present a bold face to the world, with particular drama at the intersection of Broad and Belvidere streets, a busy crossing now anchored by a gleaming flagship building that functions as a new gateway to the discombobulated university sprawling through the blocks nearby. The 41,000-square-foot ICA has three levels of exhibition space, with a soaring atrium, cafe and shop on the ground level and access to open-air gardens throughout. Along the Broad Street axis, the arts center fans out into a kind of two-finned fish tail, with two rectilinear spaces slightly angled, or “forked,” to borrow the architect’s description. But from the outside its most dramatic gesture is the profile of its steeply raked auditorium, which creates an angled volume along Belvidere Street, both sheltering and signaling the entrance.
The forked galleries have metaphysical import: “The idea of ‘forking time’ suggests that in the world of contemporary art there are many parallel times,” the architect writes on his website. “The notion of one ongoing time and its ‘grand narrative’ of history is questioned.” It’s not clear who in the world today actually believes in the grand narrative anymore — even museums founded a century ago to celebrate grand narratives have mostly abandoned them these days. But the description is apt for the spaces themselves, and for the way in which the building breaks down into a collection of events, rather than a linear or sequential string of galleries.
For a midsize building, it also manages to feel both big enough to be grand, yet full of intimate spots. There are places to gather relatively small works, traditional wall space for paintings, and larger areas for installations and multimedia theaters. To celebrate the opening of its $41 million new home, the ICA has mounted an exhibition called “Declaration,” focused on established and emerging artists who use their work to explore political and social issues. The exhibition emphasizes the ICA’s commitment to “strengthen the common good,” according to the organization’s chief curator, Stephanie Smith.
That’s a broad mandate, and the exhibition is similarly diffuse, though engaging. Think of it as a check list, perhaps worked up over long brainstorming sessions by a committee intent on demonstrating an approach that is rigorous, thoroughgoing and all encompassing. Will the ICA provoke its audience? Yes: Among the most compelling work is Paul Rucker’s “Storm in the Time of Shelter,” which explores the history and cultural roots of the Ku Klux Klan, centered on an installation of dozens of mannequins in colorful reinventions of the KKK’s white robe and hood. Will the new structure flatter work that is subtle and visually intensive on a smaller scale? Yes: The excoriating whimsy of Curtis Talwst Santiago’s little diorama boxes confronting issues of race and inequity, and the bleak indictments of Titus Kaphar’s oil and tar paintings of scenes of police brutality were as affecting as any of the larger scaled works in the exhibition.
Will the institute be connected to the community? Will it explore environmental issues outside the rarefied confines of the art world? Will it address emerging ideas in visual culture? Will it host performance and interactive work? Yes, to all of the above, and “Declaration” has the artwork to prove it.
Holl’s building gets played a bit like a grand new organ at its debut recital: All pipes sound and all the stops at one point or another are pulled. And it does a good job of managing its many responsibilities. So it’s unfortunate that one side of the structure looks as if nobody gave it a thought. Parallel to nearby Grace Street, the parts of the building that confront the visitor parking area are unresolved and messy. It’s a strange lapse for a building that has been designed to occupy its space as if it had no bad angles. Time may be forked, but apparently it still has a front and a back side. There is also a curious slope to the floors inside the structure, where pieces of its intersecting volumes come together, another small but important detail that suggests that some corners were cut.
Still, the new ICA space is a major addition to the cultural landscape of Richmond, which generally punches above its weight when it comes to cities of its size. Entrance is free, the lobby is inviting, the cafe is set into a garden plaza and the terraces offer inviting views of the city. The first exhibition is promising, and it gives visitors a reliably capacious understanding of current trends in contemporary art. And now perhaps the virtues of Holl’s building, which greatly outweigh its defects, will inspire VCU to think more seriously about improving architecture across the whole of its campus.
Declaration is on view at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University, 601 W. Broad St., Richmond, through Sept. 9. For more information, visit icavcu.org.