Photo © Bilyana Dimitrova

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Rick Mather Architects + SMBW

Richmond, Virginia

Rick Mather Architects + SMBW introduce space, light, and calm into a museum.

By Suzanne Stephens

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Museum expansions designed by prominent architects often result in a new main entrance to the addition’s grand (and new) lobby/party hall. In many cases, this reorientation of the circulation gives visitors no visual knowledge of the original museum, while the ultra-spacious lobby offers few clues to the existence of the older structure.

Rick Mather Architects + SMBW’s 165,000-square-foot James W. and Frances G. McGlothlin Wing for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond may have the de rigueur entrance and lobby/atrium, but it avoids the typical mistakes. As you arrive, you see the entrance facade on the north, as well as one on the east — which abuts the Georgian-style brick-and-limestone museum designed in 1936 by Peebles and Ferguson. More important, the museum has kept the older entrance open to the public.

On the west, facing the sculpture park, the expansion calmly meets the stalwart, rough-stoned West Wing that Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer (HHPA) added in 1985. Inside the new wing’s skylighted lobby/atrium, Mather has created vistas to older parts of the museum, many terminating in views outdoors.

Rick Mather, an American architect who transplanted himself to London in the 1960s, recently demonstrated his carefully serene approach to integrating old and new in his luminous expansion to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England [RECORD, June 2010, page 140].


The museum, which occupies a 131⁄2–acre state-owned enclave of historic buildings and gardens, wanted to add 40,000 square feet of galleries (28,000 square feet for permanent galleries and 12,000 square feet for temporary ones) to the preexisting 380,000-square-foot structure. To do so, it decided to tear down a non­descript wing, dating to 1976, for the new building, and renovate 45,000 square feet. In addition, the program called for a new restaurant, café, shop, and library, as well as a 9,500-square-foot conservation lab.


Visitors enter a lofty two-story hall that perpendicularly meets a three-story skylighted atrium. Crossed by glass bridges and pierced by a glass elevator, this light-filled vertical and horizontal spatial nexus directs visitors to old and new parts of the museum. New galleries are straightforward, with 14-foot ceilings and oak floors, although some are given traditional detailing to better frame certain collections for this substantial repository.

The exterior retains the scale and proportion of the older buildings — and on the garden elevation, it seems to play off the rhythms and scale of HHPA’s brawny architecture with smooth glass voids and light limestone masses. The Indiana limestone panels of Mather’s wing cantilever up and down from the floor plates uninterrupted by perimeter columns; this curtain wall system allows continuous bands of horizontal glazing to extend around corners.


The planes and lines of Mather’s well-composed Modernism connote an architectural genealogy dating to the International Style. Admittedly the color and texture of the limestone panels are bland, and they lack the heft of the older buildings. Yet inside the entrance hall and lobby/atrium, the combination of skylights, bridges, and stairs successfully integrate the new museum with the old. Here, the effortless spatial deployment of glass, steel, and black granite against the gentle curves of the atrium’s north wall creates a compelling centerpiece for the entire complex.

Total construction cost: $150 million

Gross square footage:
165,000 square feet (new); 45,000 square feet (renovated)

Completion date:
May 2010

Rick Mather + SMBW

December 2010
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