The Leaning Tower of Pisa has nothing on the new $48 million Center for the Visual Arts on the western edge of the Boise State University campus.
That’s the assessment of James Ogle, director of development for the BSU School of the Arts and former longtime conductor of the Boise Philharmonic.
“As you see the building, you can’t help but notice that it looks like it’s falling over,” Ogle said during a telephone interview. “Because of the angles, it leans not only left to right, but front to back.”
The 98,000-square-foot building, which broke ground in May 2017, opened last month to positive reviews as students and faculty returned for the start of the fall semester. It brings together Boise State’s fine arts departments — including art history, painting, sculpture, ceramics, metal arts and printmaking — into one world-class, architecturally stunning building that prioritizes safety, work spaces, efficiency and beauty.
It’s divided into two sections: a five-story limestsone building with classrooms, artist studios and faculty offices, and a two-story building with a stainless steel skin that appears black, blue or gold, depending on the outside light. The two buildings, located between the Morrison Center for the Performing Arts and the Micron Business and Economics Building, are joined by a large open-air atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows.
“The academic wing, clad in limestone, is huge but it’s a bit static,” Ogle said. “And so the architects wanted on the other side of the atrium, the gallery side and our office space, to have movement. When you move around the blue side, the light and the shades change. When the sunlight moves, it changes. And when the cloud cover moves, it changes.
“So there’s a real sense of motion on the gallery side.”
The grand opening
A grand opening, along with building tours for the public, will be held beginning at 5 p.m. on First Thursday, Oct. 3, as part of the monthly Downtown gallery stroll. Tours will run until 7:30 p.m. and parking is free in the Brady Parking Garage, 1323 S. Brady St.
“It certainly met my vision, exceeded my vision in every way,” said former BSU president Bob Kustra, who retired last summer after 15 years.
Placing the building along Capitol Boulevard, on the western edge of campus — where it’s the most visible — was absolutely critical to the university’s mission, Kustra said.
“We wanted to help people understand, not just our students but members of our community and visitors to Boise, that Boise State is as deeply committed to the arts as it is to engineering, as it is to the College of Business or any other discipline we offer at the university,” he said.
He previously called the building the “crowning achievement of my time here.”
The new building is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also provides greater safety for students working in studios than the five campus buildings that previously accommodated them.
Kustra said the university had been on probation from an accreditation program because “we didn’t have the right kind of ventilation, the right kind of safety measures for students working with metals or whatever it might be.”
In a painting studio in the new building, drying racks against a wall have perforated stainless steel panels that absorb smells coming from the paint. A sophisticated ventilation system scrubs contaminants and releases the treated air from stacks on top of the building.
“As you walk through the building, you’ll see emergency showers, emergency eye washes, snorkels for ventilation slots and other safety equipment,” said Douglas Suddreth, an architect who serves as Boise State’s senior project manager. “Safety is absolutely paramount.”
That’s a huge difference from conditions in the older buildings, said Emily Huff, a senior illustration student from Boise. Studio space was cramped and the ventilation system in a ceramics studio where she took a class was inadequate.
“We had a rinky-dink fan over,” she said.
At the new building, there are spacious classrooms and separate studios for ceramics, sculpture, metal arts and other areas, she said. And the ventilation systems are excellent.
“I’m happy to come here every day,” she said Thursday, walking outside the building.
Impressions from other students have been overwhelmingly positive, said Jill AnnieMargaret, a professor who heads the school’s printmaking program.
“The students who are familiar with our old spaces are coming in here and their mouths are agape,” she said.
The building provides common space where students can eat, talk or study. Soft chairs are lined against windows looking out onto the campus. And the atrium provides a large number of tables and chairs.
“We artists need space,” AnnieMargaret said. “And this provides space. It provides safe spaces with ventilation, which was desperately needed, but also provides a beautiful space.”
Unlike anything on Boise State’s campus
The building was designed by Minneapolis architect Steven Dwyer of HGA and LCA Architects of Boise. During the design process, a team led by Dwyer and Boise architect Casey Huse met with art professors and administrators to hear their dreams for the new building.
Kustra recalls a conversation he had with Dwyer, asking the architect to come up with something spectacular.
“I remember sitting in the room and saying very clearly to him, No. 1, don’t let this building look like anything else on campus,” Kustra said.
Kustra told him to think about the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, in the Basque country. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, it is considered one of the greatest buildings designed in the 20th century.
“It just seemed like a great model for the kind of architecture we wanted to define the western edge of campus and introduce people to the city of Boise,” Kustra said. “There was never any attempt to make this building fit in with the rest of the campus.”
A visual design committee put together at the suggestion of then-art department chairman Richard Young provided feedback as the project progressed. The group included philanthropists Kay Hardy and Gregory Kaslo, artist and arts patroness Esther Oppenheimer, Ketchum art gallery owner Gail Severn and others.
Each floor of the building was designed for a different medium. Ceramics and sculpture are on the first floor. The second features printmaking and metal work. The third floor has photography, graphic design and computer labs. The fourth floor has painting studios, a library and more computer labs.
The fifth floor has equipment for the ventilation system and heating and cooling equipment. There are no student areas on that floor.
Museum to be focal point
The two-story building contains three museums that will showcase student art, traveling exhibits and a sound installation gallery. The showpiece of the space will be the Keith and Catherine Stein World Museum.
That museum will allow visitors, through virtual reality, to view major pieces of art and historical locations through projections on giant glass panels.
A team of photography and computer science students traveled across the globe to capture images that will be available when the museum opens early next year.
“It will allow a fourth-grader from Caldwell to come to Boise State, stand in a room and watch a series of videos from some of the most prestigious art museums in the world,” Kustra said. “They will be able to walk around the statue of David that would take you all the way to Florence, Italy, if you wanted to do that in person.”
Ogle, Kustra and other BSU officials believe the building will be a great inspiration to those who study there.
It’s an architectural, artistic, emotional masterpiece that will stand the test of time,”Ogle said. “And I can’t wait to see the front page of ‘Architectural Digest.’”