In a new light

Art museum's new building gleams; collection shines

CorrespondentApril 18, 2010 

  • Thomas Phifer's architectural lineage gives a fuller understanding of his design ethos.

    In architectural parlance, he's a "rat."

    Born in Columbia, S.C., Phifer has degrees from Clemson University. In 1978, he went to work in Charlotte for Harry Wolf, a committed modernist.

    Phifer later joined the late Charles Gwathmey, a New York architect born in Charlotte. He then became a design partner with Richard Meier, the designer of the Getty Museum in California.

    Gwathmey and Meier were members of the New York Five, like-minded architects also called "the whites" for their favorite color.

    So Phifer's background is in rationalism, the view that buildings get their character less from their shape than from the way they are built. He's a "rat," as opposed to a follower of anti-rationalism, an "anti-rat." The big cheese anti-rat is Frank Gehry, the architect of the curvy Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Take architect Thomas Phifer at his word.

As principal designer of the N.C. Museum of Art's new galleries building, he said he wasn't interested in architectural "bravado" - creating a Gehryesque confection with an instantly recognizable profile that announced itself to Raleigh and to the world.

And certainly, at first glance, the exterior of the 127,000-square-foot structure looks rather bland. Barely visible from Blue Ridge Road, it could be a community college, an office building - even a shopping mall, albeit one finely detailed and well built.

Sitting before its silvery gray façade on a sun-blanched April morning waiting for the media preview to begin in advance of next weekend's grand opening, I hungered for some color. I was satisfied when director Larry Wheeler walked to the lectern to make introductions. He was wearing a purple tie and matching purple socks.

Phifer, wearing monkish black and white, may have a good bit of architectural reticence. But the South Carolina native, head of Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York, pulsed with understated ambition for his first museum. "We wanted it to count," he said.

On the inside, the building does.

Gained through a polished steel and glass entrance, the interior is proportioned, gracious and light-filled. Its white oak floor flows through the galleries like a river, ready to carry the visitor on a voyage of discovery.

Moreover, the curators have re-imagined the collection. Their installation emphasizes not just the Old Master holdings the museum is justly known for, but puts contemporary and global art up front. Several commissioned works and gifts to the museum, leveraged by the new building, are also highlighted.

The building has its faults, the lack of any gesture to Blue Ridge Road chief among them. But it grows in stature the more time you spend in it. While Phifer is not a big-statement architect, he has the care and precision of a watchmaker.

Playing peek-a-boo

Phifer and his colleagues faced a daunting challenge. Blue Ridge is a hodgepodge of a street, offering little context. On the site sits Edward Durrell Stone's forbidding hulk, home to the museum since 1983. Nearby stands an outdoor amphitheater. A 164-acre park of woods and open land surrounds the site.

Museum leaders wanted all this brought into a unity. And in his introduction, Wheeler emphasized that he sought an architect who could marry art and nature. A feeling for and celebration of nature is at the center of Phifer's practice.

Sited amid a tree-dotted slope, the new West Building is a rectangular box penetrated by five smaller rectangles featuring reflecting pools, sculpture and a rock garden. They create tension by breaking up the form and also bring nature into the museum.

About 230 anodized aluminum panels in an overlapping shingle pattern clad the building. Depending on the angle, the sun casts shadows that enrich the building's surface, or dematerialize it into a kind of gray haze.

Stainless steel inserted between the panels' edges is about the only ornamentation a restrained modernist like Phifer allows himself. Look at the building from a corner and you can spy your reflection - and play peek-a-boo.

One example of the architectural team's careful detailing: the panels lean in slightly. As with entasis, the gentle swelling of a classical column, this gives the façade a shapely, less static look.

To preserve a Euclidian purity, the architects tucked the mechanical systems below ground. Light wells on the roof create a wave pattern. A similar system used by Renzo Piano for an addition to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta has funnel shapes, offering a sharper profile.

Offering alternatives

Flooded with light, the interior has more oomph. In the coffered ceiling are 362 oval openings, oculi that admit filtered north light. They are adjustable and also fitted with artificial light and louvers so intensity can be adjusted.

Large glass curtain walls also light the building. Increasingly common in office buildings and schools in the United States, and often required by law in Europe, this daylighting is Phifer's most radical move, a dramatic step away from the dark box look of many, albeit older, museums.

The lobby is welcoming, with a restaurant, gift shop and nearby restrooms - the men's room fitted with flushless urinals, one of many "green" features. Visitors immediately encounter art. Jaume Plensa's cast plastic figures, "The Doors of Jerusalem," a gift of Jim Goodmon and Capitol Broadcasting Co., hang from the wall. Patrick Dougherty's swirling red maple branches line the restaurant and Jennifer Steinkamp's video "Mike Kelley" plays on a back wall. Both were commissioned by the museum.

The galleries spin off a central spine lined with classical sculpture, the marble gleaming in the light. This space helps orient visitors and makes a point about the roots of Western art and the centrality of the human figure.

You can turn left and begin with Italian art of the 13th to 16th centuries on a more or less chronological tour. But Phifer and the curators, uninterested in a "March of Art Through the Ages" experience, offer alternatives. Head to the right to contemporary art. Or across the way to African. Or to the west end to see Auguste Rodin's magnificent sculpture, stepping outside to see more of it amid stalks of bamboo.

Likewise, the installation offers juxtapositions to encourage creative encounters. Photography and craft art mix with painting and sculpture. Pieces by Moroccan, Egyptian and Nigerian artists are near high modern works by Helen Frankenthaler and Pablo Picasso (a promised gift from Josie and Julian Robertson.) Three realist paintings by Andrew Wyeth hang close to geometric abstractions by Josef Albers.

Galleries are relatively open, which is good/not-so-good.

In the contemporary spaces, openness aids in the appreciation of a large abstract painting such as Sean Scully's "Wall Light of Peru," a gift of Mary and Jim Patton. Stand anywhere and you can glimpse other work.

But openness doesn't work as well among the Old Master paintings. These galleries don't offer the sense of enclosure needed for the more intimate experience such art requires.

Here, daylighting can be a problem. Expanses of glass windows offer outside views, setting up a potential dialogue between art and nature. But they also can be a distraction. The space you want to be focused on is the one the artist created in his painting.

The lighting in the Old Master galleries seems too bright. Spotlights bathe the paintings in addition to light through the oculi. But these works were not made for such intense exposure. The balance of light and dark and of color within the works can be distorted.

On uniformly white walls, some of these paintings have the brightness of computer screens. Has this become the standard for every viewing experience?

Fulfilling a purpose

The light and space are perfection in the Rodin Court, filled with works Wheeler secured from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation. You can see "The Thinker" and "The Kiss" in the round, and go outside to see more in natural light.

Get close to "Jean de Fiennes, clothed," one of the figures from the Burghers of Calais, Rodin's imagining of a group of men about to give their lives for their city. Seeing how the master used his thumbs to gouge the eye sockets out of clay is thrilling.

Here the museum fulfills its glorious purpose: It puts the viewer nose to nose with great art and lets the sparks fly.

Phifer has said he was less interested in great architecture than creating a great experience. In such encounters he and all the others who made the West Building a reality achieved just that.

Richard Maschal retired as the Charlotte Observer's art and architecture critic in 2008.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service