A dynamic space for contemporary art, the Markel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University inspires new community connections at the intersection of campus and city in downtown Richmond.
Quinn Evans Architects served as the Associate Architect with Steven Holl Architects for VCU's new Institute for Contemporary Art at the Markel Center. This building creates a new forum for the arts on campus and forging new connections to the region's arts community. Part exhibition and performance space, part lab and incubator, this project provides a series of flexible programming spaces for the presentation of visual art, theater, music, dance, and film by nationally- and internationally-recognized artists. The facility also encompasses a 245-plus-seat performance space, outdoor plazas, a sculpture garden, classrooms, a café, and administrative offices.
The idea of “forking time” suggests that in the world of contemporary art there are many diverging directions not one grand narrative imagined in art history. The diverging forms of the galleries embody these variant movements.
The new Markel Center is organized into four galleries, each with a different character. Flexibility allows for four separate exhibitions, one continuous exhibition, or combinations. Galleries can close for installations without affecting circulation of the others. One can begin the sequence through the four galleries by taking the oversized elevator to the top and circling down, or by beginning at the lower gallery off the forum and moving up. Exposed concrete beams and planks in the galleries complement the concrete floors as a neutral backdrop that features the art. As flexible spaces, the galleries can accept suspended art or projects anchored to the floor slab.
Forming a Gateway to the University
Sited at the edge of VCU’s campus, the Markel Center links the university with its surrounding community.
At Richmond’s busiest intersection, Broad and Belvidere Streets, the building forms a gateway to the university with an inviting sense of openness. The main entrance is shaped within the junction of performance and gathering spaces. A Z form adds a vertical component, juxtaposing the horizontal X & Y configurations to play on the intersection's movement. The torsion of these intersecting bodies is joined by a “plane of the present” to the galleries in “forking time.”
Integration of Building Elements
Vertical movement along the “plane of the present” links the galleries, the performance space, sculpture garden, and forum. Along this architectural promenade, the integration of all the building elements can be experienced in dynamically revealing and changing views.
The 41,000 SF building has a double front: one side opens from the city, the other from the VCU Campus, linking city and campus. On the ground level, the café opens directly onto the terrace, or “thinking field”, as does the forum. Paved in bluestone gravel, the garden is planted with gingko trees. A large reflecting pool shapes the sense of this garden as a “thinking field”.
The building is a dynamic experience of movement in time around the exterior as well as the interior. Approaching on foot from the west (from the university), the building unfolds in the parallax of changing perspectives. As you walk, the crunch of gravel under your feet is complemented by a view that gradually opens to reveal the lobby. If you arrive by car from the north, east, or south, the double vertical geometry in torsion marks a gateway presence at the corner, which changes shape as you pass by.
The Markel Center’s fields of etched insulated glass are complemented by its greenish-grey zinc skin. Both materials constantly change their appearance under varying light and weather conditions. At night, glowing planes of obscure glass activate the exterior. The double layers of glass are also an important part of the building’s energy efficient building envelope.
The garden roofs include a sculpture terrace on the second level. The building is heated and cooled with geothermal wells and has achieved LEED gold certification.
The Markel Center’s architecture is a flexible instrument for exhibitions, film screenings, public lectures, performances, symposia, and community events. The flexible performance space has up to 245 seats and is designed to support a variety of musical, film, lecture, dance, and performance art events.It is a place designed to provoke and inspire artists, engaging the university, the city, and beyond.