Design Clash 

Compared to “nuclear-plant” design, VCU's proposed art gallery must find a new home.


Call it creative differences. Divergent opinions about the appearance of a new art gallery for Virginia Commonwealth University's nationally celebrated arts school have resulted in moving the site of the building.
Originally planned for a parcel across the street from the Jefferson Hotel next to the new Brandcenter headquarters, architects are redesigning for a location at the southwest corner of Broad and Belvidere streets.

“Somebody in my office likened [the design] to a nuclear plant,” says Beverley W. “Booty” Armstrong, part-owner of the Jefferson. He and William H. Goodwin Jr. own the hotel and have donated land in the immediate neighborhood to the school, including the locations where the new engineering, business and advertising buildings are, and where the gallery would have been.

Armstrong can appreciate the design — just not at that address. As a condition of the land donations, Armstrong and Goodwin reserved the right to review the architecture of the buildings that went up there. Armstrong says another donation of land in the immediate neighborhood is planned for 2011.

He and Goodwin wanted to have a more uniform look for the land rather than the “all-over-the-place architecture” that had characterized the university's building projects beyond the Broad-and-Belvidere area, Armstrong says. “We thought that [the gallery design] was a severe shortcoming and served to confuse people. … There was no architectural identity.” That pretty much means brick, not the zinc paneling, limestone walls and glass of the proposed gallery.

Fair enough, says Richard Toscan, dean of VCU's school of the arts.

“I have always been very clear that if we built a gallery on my watch there would not be a single brick in the thing,” Toscan says. “We've got enough brick on this campus and we were going to have a major architect do this thing and we're not going to hobble a major architect with brick.”

The decision to change the gallery location brings it closer to the school's other arts buildings, including the department headquarters on Broad and Laurel streets.

The architectural firm at the center of the debate is the internationally recognized Gwathmey Siegel in New York. It designed the 1992 addition to New York's Guggenheim Museum — a white cereal-box-proportioned structure that serves as a backdrop to the museum's famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed, corkscrew-shaped gallery.

The university has approved the new site, and nearly half of the estimated $20 million for a tentative 2011 groundbreaking has been raised, Toscan says. Although the external design is likely to change to accommodate the new site, much of the interior will remain as planned. The current design envisions 8,000 to 9,000 square feet of space for visiting exhibits and shows from the gallery's permanent collection and a 200-seat auditorium designed to handle things as varied as film festivals, chamber music concerts, and dance and theater performances.

Toscan also hopes to offer a focus on design that he sees as missing from the Richmond gallery scene. Moving to the new location would establish the gallery as the western anchor for the First Fridays Art Walks.

The university's current Anderson Gallery on Franklin Street has a heating and cooling system that “does not operate at a level that gives any comfort to conservators,” Toscan says, severely limiting the quality of loaned exhibitions in the space. The gallery has had to pass up joint exhibitions with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington — never mind the missing elevator. “We don't show anything heavier than two people can carry up,” he says.

The desire for a new gallery is also driven, in part by the school's rankings lust. The School of the Arts is the highest-ranking public art and design graduate program in the country and fourth overall behind Rhode Island School of Design, Yale University and the School Art Institute of Chicago, according to a 2008 ranking by U.S. News & World Report. In the past five years, those other programs have all built or renovated new galleries. Call it creative defensiveness. S



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