VCU's fine arts building is an impressive piece of the university's transformation of Broad Street. 

A Striking Place for Making Art

Members of the class of 2003 entering Virginia Commonwealth University this month find a campus much evolved from what their predecessors knew.

For decades, studio art classes were held in West Franklin Street garrets and carriage houses. Basketball games were scheduled at the mercy of the downtown Coliseum. The bookstore was boutique-size. And finding a parking space was iffy.

This semester, with the opening of a new 114,000-square-foot fine arts building, three massive new VCU buildings have transformed West Broad Street, a still-emerging university corridor just west of Belvidere.

Along with the Siegel athletic complex and the bookstore/parking garage, this new arts building gravitationally pulls the campus northward from Oregon Hill and the Fan. As urban design, these new buildings are strong horizontal statements, reversing '70s thinking that VCU was destined to become a high-rise campus (exemplified by the Rhoads dormitory at West Franklin and Laurel).

By extending the campus onto the aging commercial strip of Broad Street, university planners were faced with an interesting architectural challenge — whether to build all the new structures in a consistent, signifying style or to approach each building as a separate statement. In Back Bay Boston for instance, urban campuses at Northeastern University and Boston University reflect stylistic unity in their 20th-century expansions: Northeastern in a gray brick, modernist mode, and BU with sandstone and updated Gothic.

Perhaps wisely, VCU is following a different tack. The three new buildings on Broad were designed in the context of their locations. Rather than impose an even more imposing scale and arbitrary institutional brand on the fragile, adjacent Carver neighborhood, VCU is attempting to reweave the faded and torn urban fabric contextually.

The Siegel Center gives a nod to the Arts & Crafts-styled former Capital Garage at Broad and Ryland, while the new bookstore/parking deck is decidedly industrial in feel.

But the fine arts building, designed by Perkins & Will of New York and Rancon Wildman Architects of Newport News, is the most successful and memorable of VCU's Broad Street buildings. Why? Because it is unmistakably a product of its time, it expresses a handsome, efficient, late 1990s aesthetic. The building's boxy mass all but consumes the building's elongated footprint at Broad and Hancock streets. It meets the city sidewalks with no unnecessary setback. A straightforward, taut, mostly red-brick skin wraps the three-story building. Window openings are not recessed but are an important part of the building's sleek epidermis.

And there are surprises. The swooped roof line on the building's western end and a cantilevered canopy over the front door break the boxy regularity of this city block-long building. And while the seemingly plastic material used on the cornice looks a little impermanent, as if it were a meringue on a multilayered pie, the quality of light that flows inside the building on the upper level is glorious.

Purists could argue that the use of contrasting colored brick on the street facades is unnecessarily fussy. But why not? This well-balanced decorative treatment relieves the continuous horizontality of the Broad Street front, reflects the visual energy of Broad Street and acknowledges this as an art school, a lively place for making discoveries.

Unlike many modernist buildings, here the Broad Street entrance is announced confidently. An extended, sweeping arch above the second floor proclaims the general area of entry. In a terrific gesture of urban contextualism, the architects also took full advantage of the site by placing this arch on axis with Shafer Street. It creates a heroic terminus to Shafer Street, the three-block-long avenue that has long been the heart of the VCU campus.

While it is somewhat disconcerting that the front door wasn't centered directly under the arch, there was a reason for placing the portal to the far left. This allows the lobby space to serve as an art gallery. Incidentally, through an all-glass front, this gallery is fully visible to passing pedestrians and motorists on Broad. The curious can look straight through the gallery and beyond into a rear, outdoor sculpture studio.

Inside, long, central concourses run east-west on each level connecting studios and administrative and faculty offices. There are generous painting, printmaking and jewelry studios. There are state-of-the-art craft studios, furniture-making studios, woodworking spaces and computer and video editing rooms. Five generous spaces are devoted especially for art critiques. Twelve individual studios are provided for graduate sculpture students, and 16 studios are devoted to graduate painting and printmaking students.

Because of the type of work that transpires here, mechanical systems are sophisticated. Lanna Dunlap & Spriggs were mechanical engineers. Hulcher & Associates of Richmond were civil engineers and Dunbar Milby Williams Pittman and Vaughan of Richmond were structural engineers.

The interiors, concrete floors, painted cinderblock walls and Spartan departmental and faculty offices were designed by KSA Interiors of Richmond. Inside and out, the building reads clearly as a factory for making art. Leaders of the Bauhaus, an early 20th-century German design school and movement that advocated multifaceted designers working under one roof, would approve.

The school of the arts has needed this space for a long time, and the building befits a program ranked as one of the nation's top 20 art schools (the graduate sculpture program is ranked in the top five).

Richmonder Theresa Pollak taught the first art class in 1928 on the eve of the Depression at the request of Henry Hibbs, founder of Richmond Professional Institute. Things grew from there. Pollak turned 100 this summer. Never in her wildest dreams could she have envisioned that the school she and Hibbs founded would one day have a $15.7 million building. Opening just weeks after her centennial, it's a fitting present. Happy birthday, Miss

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