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“Gothic cathedrals immediately popped into my mind when I saw the ICA’s video, Richmond’s Missing Piece,” says Rebecca Field, Art and Art History Teacher at Douglas Freeman High School in Henrico County. “I teach a lot about far away places so I’m often looking for things happening in the community that my students can relate to.”

Field invited ICA Director of Education and Community Engagement, Johanna Plummer, to speak to her Advanced Placement art history students about the architectural plans for the ICA’s Markel Center in tandem with a lecture about the design and history of Chartres Cathedral by Dr. Craig Reynolds, Director at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design.

“It’s interesting to see the Markel Center through the lens of an historic piece of architecture like Chartres Cathedral,” says Plummer. “We can compare and contrast their uses, how they were built, the materials they used, their symbolism and so much more.” The ICA’s building is already one of its most important teaching and community engagement tools. As a non-collecting institution the building is the only item that will be on display and available at all times.

Field says studying the Institute and its building is an ideal way to engage students because they care a lot about things like environmental and social justice. They are curious: What materials are being used to build the ICA’s Markel Center? Where do they come from? Are they sustainable? Will the ICA be accessible to people of different socio-economic backgrounds? How is the design of the building addressing those concerns?

Exploring these questions can ultimately link back to Chartres Cathedral and answer similar questions about sponsors, audiences, architects, and more.

“One example that unites the two buildings is the forum, the Markel Center’s entrance,” explains Reynolds. Steven Holl designed the ICA’s entrance, as a grand 33-foot-high forum. One entrance opens to the city and the other toward VCU’s Monroe Park campus. It symbolically unites the community and university and is intended as a place of public gathering. “The word forum relates back to Roman architecture, the style on which Chartres Cathedral was modeled. It means “people’s space” or grand public space where free speech is invited.”

The forum is intended to be inclusive and a place for new ideas and differing opinions, not just in its exhibitions, but in the fabric of its design.

Currently the students in Field’s class are in groups making movies that explore different aspects of comparison between the ICA and Chartres Cathedral. One group is examining the economic impact of the ICA on Richmond and the cathedral’s impact on Chartres and the surrounding areas. Another group is comparing the architectural designs, focusing on the windows and the role of light between the two structures.

“It will be exciting to see what they make,” says Craig Reynolds. “They can connect the time periods and ideas very easily.”

“I have no idea what they’re going to come up with,” says Field. Her class will present their projects in the coming weeks. ICA staff will be present to learn from their insights and connections.

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Images: Rendering of the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. © Steven Holl Architects and ICA, VCU / Chartres Cathedral. © CC BY 2.5