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architecture: Museum of the Future

The Virginia Museum is embracing modernism, translucency and good design that reflects our times.

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To recap: The museum, which opened during the Great Depression in the 1930s, has had four major expansions since that time. While each new wing extended the spirit, if not the style of the original building, all have respected the strong axial relationships of its interior: Passages, interior courtyards and galleries are organized in a cross-linear fashion.

The design of the initial structure was inspired by early European museums that were housed in former, fortresslike palaces: Galleries filled the main floor (the piano nobile) and service functions were situated on the ground level.

The first two additions to the museum aped this classical, brick- and sandstone-faced building. The two latter additions, however, are decidedly more frisky. The newer of the two, the west wing, is mannerist architecturally, with oversized and rusticated slabs of stone, cheeky intrusions of glass and wry allusions to classicism.

The north wing, completed in 1976, is a highly curious affair with undulating and blank walls. Something must have been in the air back then with the curve thing: Consider the crinkled aluminum Markel Building near The Shops at Willow Lawn or the oval-shaped Richmond Coliseum that looks something like a Big Mac.

The museum's north wing, however, is amoebalike with its pair of ungainly extensions that contain galleries. But worse, this thinly articulated, underwhelming structure serves as the museum's public entrance. It's a weak handshake.

To make matters worse, with the Boulevard entrance currently shut because of budget cuts, there is no front door at all on the Boulevard. Visitors enter through the backdoor facing the parking lot. It's ridiculous. Here we are blessed with this incredible, broad, tree-lined street (even the name "Boulevard" conjures up Parisian glory), but our art museum with a fa‡ade as long as a football field has no front door.

So say goodbye to the clunky north wing and its adjacent, unlovely sculpture garden that was tolerated only because it was there. Both will be demolished to make way for the $100 million expansion.

Say hello to the proposed plan by Rick Mather + SMBW, which combines the forces of a London architectural firm (that apparently has made a name for itself by rethinking older British museums) and one of Richmond's largest and most aggressive firms.

Say hallelujah to the unabashed spirit of modernism that permeates to the very marrow of the bone of the proposed plan. It's exciting that this time around, and at so public a beloved institution, Virginians are embracing wholeheartedly good design that reflects our times. It discards the rear-view mirror mentality that drives so much architecture here. The new wing should pull the museum's Boulevard side out of architectural purgatory while addressing the landscaped, parklike setting on the inside of the block.

Simply put, the new north wing will be a glass and stone pavilion that is designed to be inviting at night, even dazzling. Looking from the outside in through expanses of glass, human movement and the display of artworks should prove enticing. It promises to be the kind of building that gets the heart beating a little faster because the visitor will be given visual hints of what's happening inside.

A prominent motor court on Boulevard will allow for the drop-off of patrons — and return the main entrance to the Boulevard side of the building. This will connect to the new parking deck to the northwest, near Sheppard Street. The driveway is set back far enough from Boulevard that the museum's parklike setting should be enhanced.

Inside, the building's five levels will link with existing floors and attempt to bring greater order to pedestrian flow and the sequence of how the various spaces are experienced.

The first level will have exhibition galleries and a new lecture hall.

An atrium on the second (entrance) level will serve as the orientation point for visitors. A restaurant, library, shop and education center also will be located there.

New galleries will be on the third and fourth levels and staff offices will occupy the fifth floor.

From an examination of the wing's model, the plan is dynamic, refreshing and uplifting. While hard to read conclusively at so small a scale, two questions pop out. One is whether the building will relate dramatically enough to the Fan District's Hanover Avenue, which comes to a dead-end at the Boulevard. Pedestrians and motorists who approach the museum from the east should be enticed by a strong visual statement on this axis. Perhaps the "glass beacon," a digital display screen that will enclose a stairwell, will serve this purpose.

Second, the new building appears to join the existing structure abruptly. Rather than being slammed into each other, perhaps transitional zones, or returns, are in order where the new meets the old.

But make no mistake. This is a bold and beautiful plan. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is to be applauded for its leadership in using architecture — not to be a statement in itself, but to advance its educational mission while enlivening and adding meaning to a prominent crossroads and a historic district of our city. S

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