Mather expansion at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts opens
The Virginia Museum of Fine Art (VMFA) opened last week after undergoing a $150 million makeover by UK-based architect Rick Mather. The commission, which is the US-born architect’s first major project in America, adds a 165,000 sq ft modern wing that seamlessly sews together the oft-renovated museum while correcting some of its flaws. The expansion doubles the museum’s gallery space, creates a new entrance on Boulevard, the main street, and adds a sculpture park to the 13-½-acre complex.
But the big gesture that dramatically transforms the way this museum is experienced, was the elimination of a 250-car surface parking lot that ran through the middle of the site in favour of a landscaped parking deck that frees the site for the display of art and returns it to a natural state. “It was a brilliant move”, said Richard B. Woodward, senior deputy director of architecture and design and curator of African art at VMFA, and chief among the reasons why Mather was selected over finalists Polshek Partnership and Smith Miller Hawkinson.
With the parking lot gone, Mather shifted the museum’s entrance from the rear of the building to its original location on Boulevard, creating a proper front door. Entrance to the building is through the new limestone wing, which is joined to the existing structure by a full-height, top-lit atrium that creates a large and welcoming lobby. This space is bookended by two 40-feet-by-70-feet windows that open the building to the landscape, creating expansive vistas of the garden beyond. From the atrium, glass staircases and sky bridges provide access to well-proportioned galleries. In designing the garden, which incorporates waterfalls, reflecting pools and terraces, Mather took inspiration from the Tivoli Gardens in Rome.
Mather said he “saw in this commission an opportunity to change the space”. He did so in ways that makes this venerated museum, which has strong collections in Faberge, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and African art, a more open institution that can now compete on a world stage.