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In April, the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (ICA at VCU) opened as the first contemporary art institution in Richmond, Virginia. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, the building serves as a cultural bridge between the campus and the school.
The inaugural show, “Declaration,” takes advantage of the flexible, forking galleries by Holl. It looks at the way today’s social issues are being addressed by contemporary artists like Paul Rucker, Deb Sokolow, Edie Fake, and Autumn Knight.
Holl has been behind dozens of spaces for art and has been a leader in environmentally sustainable design for decades. Whitewall spoke with him after the opening about how we look at art differently today than ever before, and how he designs around that. He also shared his concerns about the barriers to renewable energy created by our current administration’s policies.
WHITEWALL: The ICA at VCU opened recently. Having designed several spaces for art prior to this one, how did you approach this differently?
STEVEN HOLL: I’ve done over ten museums, and this has been very different. It’s in the center of Richmond, and in a way, it’s a bridge between the university and the city. It has two entrances, one from the garden side and one from the urban side. The idea of an urban catalyst was in my mind—how you could make the building more than an isolated object. We started designing it in 2011, and between then and the opening, there’s a new hotel, a new restaurant, and new galleries on that street.
Then there was the notion of flexibility. The program that we were given originally called for two galleries, one for permanent things. We said we should make it into four galleries, therefore you could have an end-of-the-year show for the great art department at VCU. That’s actually one of the main instigators of the idea of the project, that there would be a place for students’ work to be shown and a space where they can get inspired by other work.
WW: How did you create that feeling of flexibility in the design?
SH: There’s good, natural light, and 25-foot ceilings in all of the galleries. Even though the building is dynamic from the outside, the inside is quite calm. The galleries are open; there are no columns. It’s flexible for whatever the curators want to do. The building has these dynamic dimensions because of the concept of the urban side. The interiors are orthogonal and referring to the art.
The VCU building is also very interesting conceptually, because we look at art today and it’s not like it was in the twenties, when there was a grand narrative with Cubism; or in the fifties, when there was a grand narrative for Abstract Expressionism; or even in the mid-seventies when Conceptual art was a grand narrative. Right now there’s no grand narrative.
So one gallery could just be about Brice Marden’s paintings, one gallery can be about Doug Aitken’s videos, one gallery can be about Richard Serra sculptures. All lines of art have a validity.
The building then expresses this sort of openness of forking time. In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” from 1941, he talks about how time can fork. Which means that you can leave this present and be in another present. It’s not so far from what scientists have discovered in quantum theory. Certain things can be happening in two different places at the same time in quantum mechanics. I think it’s an interesting idea that’s been taken pretty far, but I don’t think anybody’s ever built a building around it. I’m kind of proud of that.
WW: What were the sustainability concerns with the space?
SH: The building is thermally heated and cooled. It has green roofs. It’s completely state-of-the-art ecological, and I think that’s a good example for a gateway building on the campus.
We do all of our buildings that way. I built the largest geothermal array with 660 wells, 100 meters deep in Beijing, Linked Hybrid, and now that’s almost ten years ago. It’s running perfectly, heating and cooling 780 apartments. Which shows you in the future we don’t need to think of fossil fuel.
We really need to be progressive. Unfortunately, very ignorant minds occupy high places today, and that’s going to set us back. The way we should go forward, especially as an innovative country with hope for the future, is to use solar and geothermal, all the renewables—there’s plenty. We could run the whole country easily. Leave the fossil fuels in the ground; they should be left alone. All of our buildings are examples for the future. It’s not rocket science; it’s quite easy. It’s perfected. We’ve demonstrated it again and again. The problem is ignorant minds in high places.
WW: Do you think that’s the biggest barrier at this point?
SH: It certainly is. I mean, look at what’s happening to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s a disgrace to human intelligence. It’s a disgrace to children of the future.
When I was in school, we started a group called Environmental Works, and we celebrated the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. We could see the future.
There’s optimism if we use our scientific intelligence and knowledge.