It ain't the Alps, but both museum visitors and residents of the topographically flat Museum District and Fan area have enthusiastically embraced the earthen berm that defines the north end of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts sculpture garden and partially disguises a new 600-car parking deck. The grassy slope and its walkways are populated by dog walkers, young couples, folks on strolls and, of course, art aficionados. On warm days the hill channels breezes that are not felt nearby. It offers panoramic views of the verdant museum grounds and architectural treasures in the vicinity. There are soothing and elegant water features. And yes, there's sculpture.
Named for Richmond philanthropists E. Claiborne and Lora Robins, the 3.5-acre garden wasn't fully settled when the museum opened its north wing in May 2010, although there was an inaugural installation of colorful totemic works by ceramist Jun Kaneko on the lawn immediately behind the museum. But now, with the placement of permanent pieces, cooler weather and the mummies in residence, this is an excellent time to discover the garden's pleasures.
The L-shaped garden — which begins near the museum's new north entrance, wraps seamlessly around the Rick Mather-designed addition and extends to Grove Avenue — is stagy and somewhat sharp-edged. Some might argue that a landscape augmenting so mammoth and modernist a museum structure, with its glass walls and outdoor terraces, might be better served by softer and more organic design lines, additional curving walkways and planting groups set more picturesquely. But that isn't the aesthetic of London-based architect Mather or the Olin Partnership, a Philadelphia-based landscape design firm.
What is achieved here, however, is a refreshing and welcoming openness. Former hedges along the Boulevard and Grove have been ripped out and there are no walls, fences or gates to deter visitors from entering the garden at any time, day or night. This is a radical departure from the now-demolished, fortresslike sculpture enclosure that once occupied part of this space.
Another positive change was the removal of asphalt parking lots that once snaked around the towering, oak trees — leafy carry-overs from a time in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the site housed a retirement community for Confederate veterans. The parking areas have been reclaimed for a broad lawn that is calming and also serves as a platform to show off the impressive, linear sweep of the museum's western facade — both Mather's exuberant new McGlothlin Wing and the muscularly rusticated, 1980s Lewis Mellon Wing designed by Hardy Holzman Pheiffer Associates of New York City. Thus, the overall sculpture garden design celebrates the VMFA building itself — the largest object in the collection.
But the intimate design details of the garden are just as successful as the sweeping urban design concepts. Pedestrian adventures await visitors who can choose to either ascend the berm by following a ramp that zig-zags upward or by taking a granite staircase directly up to the top. The crest of the hill offers a surprise — it is a long, outdoor room. Pleasantly, the platform isn't paved in stone or brick, but in teak. Benches and platform seating are comfortable and the groupings of shade trees allow for private conversations, but within people-watching distance of other goings-on. Then there is a water feature. It starts as a narrow, rectangular pool on the upper platform and flows eastward where it tumbles down over a series of rectangular blocks and into the pool at the bottom.
And what about the sculpture? Despite some choice pieces by Henry Moore and Arnaldo Pomodoro, among others, there needs to be more of it. But this glorious new space should inspire gifts and purchases to the museum. What has been installed doesn't look at home yet. Aristide Maillol's bronze "La Riviere" is uneasily suspended in space: It needs to come in for a landing. But tweaking will come over time.
For now, visitors to the museum can enjoy the open air and bask in a remarkable and intelligent transformation that has turned a former parking lot and walled garden into a grand new public space that simultaneously achieves majesty and intimacy. S