MARK HOLMBERG: VCU’s Modernistic Art Institute – fresh air for a funky intersection?

RICHMOND, Va (WTVR)- Virginia Commonwealth University plans to build a modernistic art institute  at the crucial corner of Belvidere and Broad in Center City. Its $32 million dollar price tag will be funded by donations, and should be in place by 2015.

The architect is one of the world’s most famous and heralded, Steven Holl Architects.

“There were 63 architectural firms responded to our request for proposals,” said Joe Seipel, dean of VCU’s School of the Arts. “And among those were some of the top architects in the entire world. And he was our unanimous choice.”

But is it a good fit for the old capital of the Confederacy?

While being the city’s main intersection, Broad and Belvidere has largely been a wasteland for the past quarter century. Panhandlers with signs are frequently on every corner.

If it wasn’t for VCU’s recently built dorms on the northwest corner and a Rite Aid on the northeast corner, it would be one of the most desolate intersections in the downtown area.

The parking lot where the Institute for Contemporary Art will go used to be  used car lot back in the 70s. But it’s been a vacant lot since then. It was the site of one of the most alarming center-city murders in recent history, the senseless 2004 shooting of a Virginia State University student in the midst of a massive street party.

Finally, VCU will transform it, as it has with so much of this area. Some of VCU’s infill buildings stretched a little architecturally, such as its school of engineering, but many have nodded to function over form.

“I like to think of it as crabcake, a lot of filler,” Edwin Slipek, architecture critic for Style Weekly, said of much of VCU’s expansion. “This will be like prime meat. This is a great new building for VCU, and for Richmond.”

It will be the most modernistic building in Richmond, its main competitors being the addition to the Museum of Fine Arts and the decades-old Markel building.

This will be something completely out of character in one of the key gateways. No fence around it. Its translucent skin radiating light at night.

This being Richmond, some will say it doesn’t fit in with the mood of this old city.

“Fit in with what?” scoffed Slipek. “Fit in with a gas station across the street? Or another gas station behind it? It’s going to be a breath of fresh air. I say, bring it on.”

Slipek notes that it’s probably the most challenging corner in the city, with 32 lanes of traffic and a wide variety of pedestrians.

Chris McVoy, a partner in the much-awarded Steven Holl architecture firm, tells CBS-6 they carefully studied the site and came up with a plan to celebrate its openness as well as VCU’s vast reputation in the art world and the idea that this could improve the mood of this gateway. He also noted that stretch of Broad street has recently seen the seeds of rebirth as a business and art district.

“Yes, Richmond has these historic buildings, but Richmond also has the best state art school in the country,” McVoy said. “And shouldn’t that have its place in the city? And why not bring that energy to this important corner that can be a real catalyst for the urban life there?”

What do you think?

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