Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

architecture: The Museum That Was (Part 1)

Classicism will bow to modernism in the Virginia Museum's planned makeover. Here's a look at its architectural evolution to today.

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A giddy kick-off party took place April 2 to announce that substantial funds had been raised. With a gospel choir, dozens of dancers and mimes interpreting artworks in the museum's galleries, the reception had the feel of a colorful Fellini film with a little "Let's Make a Deal" thrown in: $1 million-and-above donors proudly sported party crowns adorned with dollar signs while givers in other major categories wore specially designed necklaces. The party itself cost $250,000.

Subtle it wasn't.

"Listen: Nothing, nothing happens without money," observed the inestimable Pamela Reynolds, a longtime museum trustee and patron, who helped mastermind the event. "That's what tonight is all about, acknowledging that this project, the arts, takes money."

The evening's centerpiece was a model of the building that will bring the museum's square footage to 340,000 square feet. But from examining the model, a 600-vehicle garage and a new sculpture garden will equally do as much to transform the museum's parklike setting on Boulevard between Grove and Kensington, into a cultural juggernaut.

The new wing — actually, new core is more appropriate — will be a radical departure architecturally from the existing building. The latter's red, Flemish bond, brick facing will be joined by expanses of stone and glass. Classicism will bow to modernism. But most importantly, the new building will enthusiastically embrace its prominent Boulevard site and re-orient how visitors move through the museum.

To better understand how the Rick Mather+SMBW project will function begs a review of how the Virginia Museum's main building has evolved over 68 years from a modest but handsome, Depression-era building to include four additions and a sculpture court.

The state-owned museum opened in 1936 on the Robert E. Lee Camp, a tract of land that had long been a retirement community for Confederate veterans. Some considered it sacred territory: Veterans worshipped at, and were later memorialized, at the picturesque, frame chapel that still sits on the property near Grove.

To create minimum physical and psychological disruption to the veterans' routine, the museum was built in the far, southeast corner of the block.

Architect Peebles and Ferguson, a top-draw Norfolk firm, reflected a wing of England's Hampton Court designed by Christopher Wren in its design. With a central pediment, symmetrical fenestration and restrained adornments, it is faced in red brick and sandstone trim.

The first addition came in 1954. This complemented the original structure architecturally and included a theater, which housed the now-closed TheatreVirginia, and has been a venue for film, dance and music programs.

In 1968, a matching wing was wedged to the south side of the building. This housed additional galleries, offices and a library.

Then in 1976, a new wing and sculpture court was added to the north side of the building. Designed by Robert Stewart of Hardwicke Associates, this kidney-shaped extension departs dramatically from the building's classical spirit. It is set back from the Boulevard and is decidedly modernistic. A sweeping lobby staircase cleverly connects many levels containing galleries for traveling exhibitions, retail, a cafeteria, auditoriums and the sculpture garden.

With completion of this north wing, the orientation of the building's entrance shifted to the rear surface parking lot. The formal front door on Boulevard was closed permanently.

But the north wing has other drawbacks, the worst of which are the gallery's curved walls. Hadn't we learned from Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim that rounded walls are problematic? For each of the installations here at VMFA, designers and carpenters reconfigure the walls at right angles. This loses space, time and dollars.

And the pristine, marble-clad lobby, while an excellent traffic distributor, has all the charm of a well-maintained subway station. Try as staff may, sculpture and fresh flowers can't transform the loud, joyless space.

From outside, the west wing is defensive looking and fortresslike with an unfortunate, blank expanse of brick wall fronting Boulevard and aligned on axis with Hanover Avenue. And up close, the Flemish bond brick pattern that was first used on the original building is continued here. Brickwork so highly associated with Virginia's 18th-century architectural heritage sends a conflicting message on a modern structure. Additionally, the building's scale has become too large for so small a building element.

The walled, sculpture court, by prominent California-based landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, is likewise unabashedly modernistic. But it too is problematic. In the court, there is a psychological disconnect with the adjacent building because of mirrored glass doors and windows. And the stone, cubist fountain is inoperative as often as active. And, well, there just isn't enough sculpture. This rather fragile space is given a rough workout regularly with musical mixers aimed at attracting young patrons: Police fences are placed around sculptures and a temporary-looking, wooden service platform has become a permanent and disfiguring element. This outdoor space was never maintained or programmed with the thought and care given interior spaces.

This north wing and the sculpture court will be demolished to make way for the new expansion.

The most recent addition was completed almost 20 years ago. It was designed by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. The New York firm interpreted and expanded upon the building's original, classical intent. Confident axial lines connect the wing to the original building and other axial lines link the wing's string of galleries and make a visual connection through windows to Grove Avenue on the east and the Robinson House on the west.

On the exterior, HHP retired the Flemish bond brick pattern and introduced overscaled blocks of stone which are respectful, but do not mimic the delicious row of Queen Anne residences across Grove. There also is a clever and highly subtle use of the Tuscan order of classical architecture which is appropriate considering how the wing faces a parklike setting.

And so the museum's main building, which has seen dramatic change since 1936, is about to receive its most elaborate makeover ever. The modernistic north wing and Lawrence Halprin garden will be sacrificed in the process.

Better the devil we know than the devil we don't know? We'll discuss that next week when we take a critical look at the proposed design by Rick Mather+SMBW. S

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