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Sculptural, Smooth, Fluid and Monolithic

Irregularly shaped blocks that slot together create a modern museum

Ica July18 4

Thrillist, an online media website covering food, drink, travel and entertainment, called the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) at the Markel Center on the Richmond, Va.-based Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) one of the top 10 coolest things to open in the United States in 2018.

One of the 2018 Metal Architecture Design Award judges simply called the ICA “perfect.” Judges cited the art museum for its innovative box stacking (without overlap), lightweight and yet very strong selection of materials and curvatures that all came together in what they called a “subtle and beautiful way.”

VCU spent $41 million on this 41,000-square-foot museum devoted to showcasing art from modern artists on what was planned to be Richmond’s first true cultural cornerstone and its first, free-standing institution devoted to contemporary art. Organized in four galleries, each with a different character, this white-blocked building with a 33-foot-high central forum is a non-collecting museum to keep its exhibits, films and special programs cutting edge so visitors can come back for new experiences. “The interior will be continuously transformed,” says Michael Lease, ICA’s director of facilities, installation and exhibition.

Photo: ©Mark Kempf, courtesy of RHEINZINK America Inc.

Photo: ©Mark Kempf, courtesy of RHEINZINK America Inc.


Designed by New York City-based Steven Holl Architects, the ICA is a dramatically sculptural building clad in glass and zinc, located on a street that once marked the boundary between Richmond’s black and white communities. Sited on the edge of the VCU campus on one of Richmond’s busiest intersections, city planners hope it will serve as a gateway to the university with an inviting sense of openness, one that will link the university with the surrounding community. Dual entrances open to the city’s arts district on one side and VCU’s Monroe Park campus on the other.

According to Steven Holl Architects, the main entrance is formed by an intersection of the performance space and forum, adding a “Z” component to the “X-Y” movement of the intersection. The firm also says the torsion of these intersecting bodies is joined by a “plane of the present” to the galleries in “forking time.” The idea of “forking time,” inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” suggests that in the world of contemporary art there are many parallel times. The notion of one, ongoing time and its “grand narrative” of history is questioned. BCWH Architects, Richmond, Va., was the associate architect, Robert Silman Associates, New York City, was the structural engineer, and Gilbane Building Co., Providence, R.I., was the general contractor.

Photo: Iwan Baan


The glass walls and windows create continuity between the interior and exterior spaces of the building. On the first floor, a 4,000-square-foot gallery, café, bar and concept shop radiate from the ICA’s central forum and frame an outdoor garden. A Thinking Field garden can be used for social gatherings and public programs. The first floor also features a state-of-the-art, 240-seat auditorium for film screenings, performances, lectures and other programs. The second floor includes two forking galleries and an adaptable learning lab for interactive engagement. A publicly accessible terrace features one of four green roofs. The third floor’s gallery has soaring, 33-foot-high walls and houses one of the administrative suites and the boardroom. Its external appearance consists of sculptural blocks; one block almost forming a triangle is in the front of the building. While from the outside, it appears the building blocks are separate volumes, spaces merge together inside with fluidity.

According to Steven Holl Architects, “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. Like many contemporary artists working today, the ICA’s design does not draw distinctions between the visual and performing arts. The fluidity of the design allows for experimentation and will encourage new ways to display and present art that will capitalize on the ingenuity and creativity apparent throughout the VCU campus.”

Using metal allows the fluid characteristics of today’s art to be represented in ICA’s design. Woburn, Mass.-based RHEINZINK America Inc. supplied 1.75-mm prePATINA zinc blue-grey panels for roof and wall applications. According to Steven Holl Architects, “The prePATINA blue-grey RHEINZINK exterior interfaces with clear and translucent glass walls and skylights that infuse the building with natural light and lessen reliance on nonrenewable energy. The zinc shares the same greenish-gray tonality as the matte glass, giving the building a shifting presence from monolithic opaque to multifarious translucent depending on the light.”

Photo: Iwan Baan

Kansas City, Mo.-based A. ZAHNER Co. fabricated 32,000 square feet of the zinc plate panel. “ZAHNER developed multiple panel systems using RHEINZINK materials on a supply-only basis,” says Gary Davis, ZAHNER’s director of marketing. “To create museum-quality edges and detailing, ZAHNER digitally defined the scopes of work and fabricated from our 3-D model. Preceding construction tolerances were dealt with in a timely manner.”

The Ziff Clip and Rail System is a proprietary system developed by ZAHNER to install curved wall panel systems. It allows some minor adjustments of the curved panel when fabricated panels do not meet the exact as-built conditions.

Wheeling, W.Va.-based Kalkreuth Roofing and Sheet Metal installed the zinc metal plate panels, including the Ziff extruded rails and 3-D laser scans for installation coordination/fabrication. “Setting up the Ziff system on the curved wall was a challenge,” says Dave Kopko, project manager at Kalkreuth. “Getting the elevation of the panel face from the curved system was tough and that Ziff system got us there. We had to run numerous level lines to acquire those elevations.”

Marcus Gough, estimator at Kalkreuth, says the curved wall also utilizes an aluminum internal drainage system that sheds rainwater away from the building, all under the panel system that is completely invisible from pedestrians. Also, “The compound curved walls had strict tolerances for the panels, and being over a concrete structure, compensating for the ins-and-outs of the concrete was a challenge,” he adds. “With the help from our 3-D scanning software, we were able to recognize the problem and correct the issue before panels were delivered to the site.”

The pre-weathered, satin-finish zinc exterior of the Markel Center, which houses the ICA, includes interspersed clear- and translucentglass walls and skylights that infuse the building with natural light and lessen reliance on nonrenewable energy. Geothermal wells provide heating and cooling energy for the building, and four green roofs absorb storm water, offset carbon emissions and maximize insulation. Building materials include Virginia bluestone and custom glass cavity walls, designed to exhaust heat in the summer and harness it in the winter. The project is designed to meet LEED Gold certification standards.