Restrained and reductive, North Carolina Museum of Art to open
The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) will reopen to the public on 24 April after a three-year expansion. When it does, it will have a new-found clarity thanks to architect Thomas Phifer and Partners, who designed the museum’s new 127,000-square-foot West Building, the centerpiece of a $83.9 million transformation, and renovated its East building designed in 1983 by Edward Durelll Stone.
As in all of Phifer’s work, light and the relationship of building and nature are key, which here has resulted in a highly disciplined, simple pavilion that absorbs and reflects its surroundings so well it all but disappears. Like Renzo Piano, Phifer is one of those architects that carefully studies the situation before making a move. And when he does, he proceeds with an exacting precision and a less is more approach that more often than not achieves remarkable results.
In designing the museum's West building, Phifer uses scale, organization, and materials to create a building that celebrates art, drawing on history and his own work for inspiration. In choosing to make the building a single storey pavilion, Phifer drew inspiration from the Greeks and Romans, who 'recognized the intelligence of creating a flat landscape to organize an ensemble of buildings'. In deciding how to exhibit sculpture, he turned to Scarpa’s Canova Museum for inspiration, a building that presents sculpture in an amazing, and daring way to achieve a powerful connection to natural light and nature. In thinking about how visitors would experience the site, a 164-acre park of rolling hills edged by native woods, Phifer looked to the French Chateau, embracing the idea of a landscape that starts out as formal and manicured and then becomes progressively informal and untamed the further away it gets from the building. And in designing the building’s vaulted coffers, which flood the galleries with soft, filtered light, Kahn’s Kimball Museum was the inspiration.
But in choosing the materials for the museum, which is clad in anodized aluminum panels and large expanses of glass, Phifer's own work was a source of inspiration. Like the West building, Phifer's Salt Point House in Long Island, built of corrugated steel and glass, explores the play of light on materials, which blurs the distinction between opacity and transparency and between indoor and outdoor space.
While the building is arrestingly beautiful, Phifer points out that it is first and foremost in the service of art. He describes his mission in designing the building as stemming from “a need to make an entirely open, accessible experience that can change the culture of the state of North Carolina by welcoming individuals, opening their minds, and letting people have a great experience”.
That experience is one that wholly immerses the visitor in art, while enveloping him in nature. The visitor's journey begins at the building’s entrance which is marked by an allee of trees in a garden. From here, the visitor enters the museum through tall glass doors that lead to a spacious sculpture hall in lieu of a lobby that immediately engages him in art. Around this hall, are organized galleries that frame views of reflecting pools, gardens and courtyards beyond, extending the vista, merging art and landscape.
In an era where many modern art museum’s have chosen to go down the Bilbao path of building statement structures with bloated programs that relegate art to a secondary role, Thomas Phifer’s new West wing puts art front and center, showcasing it in an ethereal jewel box that rises to the level of the art it contains.
In thinking about what makes great architecture, and what separates the cooks from the chefs, Phifer himself perhaps said it best.
“The best architecture strives for design excellence. Its not a quality that’s easy to define but we recognize when we see it. It doesn’t reside in form, style or materials. It’s reflected in the deeper attributes of appropriateness, proportion, attention to detail and celebration of crafts. It’s expressed in neighborliness and a democracy of spirit.”