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Rick in Richmond: Virginia MFA’s Architectural Hits and Misses

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The new Rick Mather-designed McGlothlin Wing of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

I’ve gone far afield from Richmond since I began fleshing out my Wall Street Journal article about the 165,000-square foot expansion of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. But I’ve still got one more CultureGrrl photo essay to go, in completing our tour of the recently renewed and reopened VMFA. This one takes a closer look at the architecture.

Below are some illustrations that serve as companion to my WSJ descriptions of the design by American-born, London-based Rick Mather—his first major project in the U.S.

As I stated in my review, the genius of Mather’s achievement is his enhancement of the visitor experience through ease of circulation and navigation. In this regard, his work far outstrips the similarly long but much less visitor-friendly courtyard of the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mather fulfills the practical requirements of the VMFA’s “main street” with flair. Here, flanked by one of the gray-carpeted stairways, are two of six glass-walled bridges—four in the atrium, two in the entrance hall:

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At the top center of the photo below, you can see one of the three glass-walled elevators, which add their own bit of visual entertainment to the atrium’s bustle. Below and to the right of the elevator is Barry Flanagan‘s sculpture, “Large Leaping Hare”:

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Here are the steel fins supporting the roof, and a view of how natural light plays upon the wall of the atrium. (Those tables below are set up for a preview party.):

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In the old masters galleries, you can see one of the several sightlines that extend across the breadth of the museum, anchored by what the curators call “axial objects”—powerful pieces strategically positioned along the linear thoroughfares, beckoning you onward:

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And here’s the marble statue that was glimpsed from a distance:

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“Septimus Severus,” Roman, 200 A.D.

Not everything about the architecture succeeded for me, however. One disappointment was the new subterranean special exhibition area, tucked away at the bottom of a stairway at the far end of the atrium. To me, it had an uninviting, basement-like feel. But only part of that space was open when I visited, with construction still continuing on the rest. Perhaps the finished galleries will seem more welcoming.

But this misstep, near the beginning of the American art galleries, surely needs remediation, as even American art curator Sylvia Yount conceded when she showed me around the permanent collection:

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The glare from that window makes the folk-art painting on the right impossible to see properly.

What I like least about the VMFA’s architecture isn’t Mather’s fault. It’s the 1985 Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer wing for the Paul Mellon collection of sporting art and the Sydney and Frances Lewis collection of modern and contemporary art, paid for by those collectors and jarringly out of character with the rest of the museum.

Here’s how the 1985 addition it meets the older building:

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And this shows you its mishmash interior, trying to look opulent but coming across as ostentatious. In the foreground is the floor of its large marble courtyard, at the point where it meets the herringbone parquet floor used in the galleries. Those fussy columns are composed of fossilized limestone:

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Here’s a closer view of those fossils:

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In one of his canniest commissions, modern and contemporary art curator John Ravenal ordered a new concrete floor (evoking an artist’s loft) for the museum’s first galleries devoted to 21st-century art, which are located in the Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer wing:

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Now if they could only get their sculpture garden and waterfall finished!

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