Working on Many Levels 

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For millennia, humans have squished mud through their fingers to shape utilitarian pieces and ceremonial vessels. In most societies, pottery-making has been long-ingrained in the cultural fabric. Painting, printmaking and carving wood, stone and ivory are also ancient traditions. But in the history of making objects and art, it would be hard to imagine a finer environment for making things or touching our inner, expressive selves than at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

The reconceived and recently enlarged center at 1812 W. Main St. seamlessly fuses spaces for creating art with places for viewing it. The previously 19,000-square-foot facility has been expanded to 32,000 square feet of studio, gallery and support space.

The Richmond-based architecture firm of 3North rethought the sturdy, but architecturally underwhelming, industrial building (which was built in 1920 for Virginia Dairy Co.) and transformed it into a space both highly utilitarian and subtly beautiful. What makes the interior so refreshingly honest is that the complex series of spaces on mostly two levels reads with utmost clarity from the moment one sets foot in the lobby. It's immediately clear that this is a welcoming and unpretentious environment in which to make art or view the work of others.

The simple pleasures begin with the exterior. The stretch of West Main Street near Lombardy Street has undergone an exhilarating transformation in recent years. Here, the colorful palette of Uptown's mostly narrow townhouse-scaled structures gives way to more somber, modest red-brick warehouses. These latter structures have recently found new life as retail, gallery and bistro spaces. In the midst of this, the VACR is composed of three adjacent, two-story brick commercial buildings. The two largest of these are styled in the Arts and Crafts design aesthetic (emphasizing natural materials and strong structural elements), with low-slung, Mediterranean-inspired roofs providing a shallow canopy along the sidewalk. The front brick was cleaned, brick on the eastern wall painted a deep shade of red and the ribbon windows on the second floor rehabbed.

A new entrance was re-established midway along the facade and is now announced by a major art installation: a pair of elegant, heroic-scaled gates by Maurice Beane, a Richmond metal artisan, commissioned by VACR. While far breezier than Lorenzo Ghiberti's gates at the Baptistery in Florence (1425), it would be hard not to make a connection. But Beane's gates actually have a more medieval than early Renaissance look, with panels signifying activities offered within -- metallurgy, photography, woodworking, painting and ceramics. When open, the gates project beyond the building wall and protrude onto the sidewalk, forcing passersby, both motorists and pedestrians, to confront them.

Stepping inside the building through sleekly modern glass doors, one passes a reception desk and enters a reversed L-shaped space. This serves as an orientation point, a special events space and a gallery. From here, one also grasps the underlying architectural aesthetic of the place. The eye moves upward to the original, rugged wooden roof and beams with an accompaniment of conduits, pipes and ducts, all painted stark white. The flooring here is concrete in some places and handsome bluestone in others to create a kind of main street through the building. Walls are art display spaces. But the eastern wall has been punctuated with large glass windows that allow views into studio spaces.

The flooring expanse of this casual but strangely grand space is interrupted by four concrete steps that lead to an upper platform and formal gallery space. The 2,000-square-foot gallery allows VACR additional continuous and secured space for its ambitious and often world-class exhibitions. (The current showing of works of the human figure by VCU professor Elizabeth King runs through Feb. 17.)

But the building is all about synergy between looking and doing. Some 4,000 individuals are enrolled in 400 course offerings annually. Just to the east of the foyer is a handsome metal staircase that leads to the second floor. Here, the flooring is red brick, but there are large windows along the passageways from which to observe the classroom/studios. There are also studio spaces for artists in residence on this floor.

What the center and its architects have created is a space that maintains the sense of what was before while creating a space that is absolutely new. The understated, elegant choice of new materials injected in the rehab parallel a similar project just a block away, the Page Bond Gallery, which was also adapted from a former industrial building by 3North.

With its new facility, VACR can add — after the 45 years since its founding — another medium to its already impressive list of offerings and experiences: architecture. And Richmond, which has a deservedly excellent reputation for visual arts, gains a destination suitable for the aspirations of its artists and patrons. S

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