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Roanoke goes avant-garde in museum design

Image: Roanoke Art Museum
An artist's rendering of the $66 million contemporary art museum in Roanoke, Va.—the new home for the Art Museum of Western Virginia, which will be renamed the Taubman Museum of Art when it opens in November.Randall Stout Architects Inc. / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Until now, the prominent features of Roanoke's skyline have been neon: a Dr Pepper sign, a giant star atop Mill Mountain and an animated coffee pot that pours its contents into a cup. Not far away, "Jesus Saves" glows in red from a hilltop church.

But there is a new addition under construction in this old railroad city in the mountains of western Virginia: a $66 million contemporary art museum of steel, patinated zinc and glass under construction on a prominent downtown site amid 1920s-era brick facades.

The building will provide a new home for the Art Museum of Western Virginia, which will be renamed the Taubman Museum of Art when it opens in November.

The building was designed by Randall Stout, a Los Angeles architect, who said the exterior was drawn after months of working on plans for the interior.

"The beginning of bending roofs started to happen very quickly and very intuitively," he said. The result — undulating roofs with sharp peaks unlike any building in the southeastern U.S. —could be evocative of the surrounding mountains.

Or not. One critic thought the rendering published in The Roanoke Times looked like "the wreck of the Flying Nun."

"We've had a lot of people who really don't like the building, and a lot of people who love the building, and a lot of people who can't make up their minds whether they like it or not," said Georganne Bingham, the Art Museum of Western Virginia's director.

The mixed reaction was expected, she said.

"It's a work of art," Bingham said. "That makes it very emotional for people."

While some locals have expressed wariness, the bold design of Frank Gehry's protege is playing well elsewhere. It received an American Architecture Award last year from the Chicago Athenaeum, and Bingham said she expects an increased number of visitors from around the world as the fall opening date approaches.

Stout believes skeptics may be won over once they visit the museum.

"I think people will walk in and understand that the way the spaces flow and the high volumes of ceilings, the washing of natural light — I think they'll recognize that as striking, and much different than entering maybe a more conventional building," he said.

Stout draws inspiration in part from his childhood in rural east Tennessee, where he often played in an old tobacco barn. Its curing wings, high-ceiling hayloft and the ribbons of light that filtered through spaces in its wooden planks made him feel like he was in an elegant cathedral.

He still likes drama and sunlight in his buildings. Visitors will enter the three-story museum through an atrium with a domed glass ceiling rising 81 feet to a peak, featuring a wide staircase to second-floor galleries that "in itself is a dramatic piece of architecture," museum spokeswoman Kimberly Templeton said.

Some 240,000 visitors are expected the first year, and Bingham is eager for them to see what the museum has to offer.

"I think they're going to be very surprised to find out that we have something going on inside the building that makes the program worthy of the building," she said.

The 81,000 square feet of space will give the museum four times the exhibit area that it has in its current building — room to display much more of the permanent collection as well as special exhibits. Patrons also might be surprised at how different the artwork looks once it is moved from the museum where lighting is difficult to control, Bingham said.

The museum now displays less than 6 percent of its permanent collection, which includes works of 19th and 20th century American art by Thomas Eakins, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer and contemporary works by Jacob Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Sally Mann.

Each gallery will be distinctive. For instance, a Judith Leiber collection of women's jeweled purses will be suspended in individual lighted glass spheres in a small gallery with its walls and ceiling covered in black fabric.

About 70 percent of visitors are expected to come from within a 100-mile radius of Roanoke, a city of close to 95,000 that was the headquarters of the Norfolk & Western Railway before it merged with the Southern in the 1980s. The city's transportation museum has a number of locomotives built in the city, and the O. Winston Link Museum features photography of the steam-engine era.

Nearly $52 million has been raised for the museum, including $12 million in government money. Among 175 donors, the largest gift has been $15 million from Nicholas and Eugenia Taubman, for whom the new building will be named. Nicholas Taubman, a Roanoke native, is U.S. ambassador to Romania.

While the building departs from tradition, Stout pays homage to Roanoke's roots. On one side of the building, passing Norfolk Southern trains are visible on nearby tracks. Balconies on the opposite side give bird's-eye views of the H&C coffee pot and Dr Pepper signs.

"If we can help people celebrate who they are and what they are and what their role has meant," Bingham said, "then we'll feel like we are accomplishing a lot of our goal."