Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU


Iwan Baan

Forming less of a bridge and more of a portal between the city and the university, between the past and future, the Institute for Contemporary Art celebrates the transformative capacities and responsibilities of art and architecture.

Af Jason Dibbs

Steven Holl Architects’ Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University makes for a striking formal composition, with the cool transparency of its faceted volumes thrown into sharp relief against the red and beige brickwork of downtown Richmond.

The Institute for Contemporary Art is clad in glass and titanium-zinc panels and is comprised of exhibition galleries, offices, classrooms, a café, retail spaces, a 240-seat auditorium, an outdoor theatre, a garden, and a ‘thinking’ field. Designed to function as a new gateway to the University, the collection of rectilinear & triangulated volumes and planar & curved surfaces creates an intriguing and incongruous landmark amid the aged facades of Broad and Belvidere Streets in Richmond’s downtown area.

The New York and Beijing-based practice’s design is ambitious, reflecting an equally ambitious brief: it is at once tasked with creating a new gateway to the Virginia Commonwealth University precinct and with re-imagining the ‘white cube’ gallery typology in the face of changes within contemporary art. As such, spaces have been designed not only to accommodate the exhibition of works of all mediums but also to cultivate contemplation, learning and the exchange of ideas.

Materially, there are clear resonances between Steven Holl’s Institute for Contemporary Art and one of the architects’ other recently completed projects, Maggie’s Centre Barts in London; both exploit tensions between transparency and opacity with their use of translucent glass panels, although the latter mentioned project arguably exhibits a more explicit formal relationship with the fabric of its architectural context — with the horizontal orientation of framed glass gesturing to the coursework of adjacent masonry. Conversely, the Institute for Contemporary Art sits conspicuously amid its neighbors, signaling new possibilities for the urban, downtown landscape.

Environmentally, the Institute for Contemporary Art has been calibrated to capitalize on natural light and rainwater harvesting. Green roofs line the gallery volumes, with plantings of drought-resistant native plants and abundant apertures concealed within the almost undifferentiated facade reduce dependence on artificial light, while geothermal wells and cavity walls moderate the building’s heating and cooling requirements.

One of the underlying concepts behind Steven Holl Architects’ design for the Institute for Contemporary Art is that of “forking time” — the notion of concurrent parallel times, as opposed to the “grand narrative” of conventional history. This concept is intersected by another; the “plane of the present,” establishing a dialogue between the present and the potential contained within each moment. Architecturally, this concept is manifested in the flexibility of the gallery spaces, attempting to keep pace with the ever-changing face of contemporary art.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s new gateway building quietly embodies a glowing sense of dynamism and possibility. Succinctly and clearly summing up the ambitions for the Institute for Contemporary Art, Steven Holl has said, “we designed the ICA to be a flexible, forward-looking instrument that will both illuminate and serve as a catalyst for the transformative possibilities of contemporary art.”

Country and City



Steven Holl Architects