Since he became the North Carolina Museum of Art’s director in 1994, Lawrence Wheeler has lobbied for an expansion to the Raleigh, N.C., institution’s 1983 Edward Durell Stone–designed building (completed after his death). This year—after an fundraising campaign to get more than $70 million from state, county, and city funds, as well as from private donors—his vision was finally realized with the opening of a new 127,000-square-foot building by New York–based Thomas Phifer and Partners.
Wheeler’s vision called for a light-filled building open to the surrounding landscape and free to the public, in which art would be presented in a less constricted environment than the existing building allowed; it would also be a destination for anyone seeking a place of beauty and serenity. This became partner-in-charge Thomas Phifer’s mandate. The once rural site is now a museum park, veined with hiking and bike trails leading to site-specific art installations.
A Southerner himself, Phifer sought to acknowledge the region’s historic attachment to the land, designing a museum that would be an iconic landmark for the state without overwhelming the site’s established identity. “The goal from the beginning was to create a beautiful environment for experiencing the museum’s diverse collection of art, both in galleries and out in the landscape,” Phifer says.
Phifer’s parti is a large rectangle penetrated by smaller rectangles that represent the park’s infiltration of the building. These penetrations evolved into sculpture courtyards with reflecting pools and a garden with granite boulders from western North Carolina that are placed as sculptural pieces. Low-E–glazed window walls allow clear, untinted views from the interior galleries to art installations outside. At these points, unlike most museums, the building allows liberal access in and out, contributing to an experience that is of the land. This is reinforced by the fact that the museum is a single story: No visitor is ever isolated from the landscape.
Elsewhere, the perimeter of the one-story structure is windowless, clad with a vertical array of anodized-aluminum panels with a matte-gray finish. Each of these panels measures 5 feet 2 inches by 24 feet, which qualifies them as among the largest aluminum panels fabricated in the U.S. to date. Each panel overlaps the next at an angle, and in the resulting gap, a highly polished, stainless-steel insert reflects the sun’s rays back onto the adjacent panel. Without this detail, the solid façades would seem monolithic and impenetrable; instead, the walls seem to dematerialize as reflections of clouds and trees float across the surfaces.
What is not perceptible is that these walls are 2 feet thick. Rigid insulation occupies the exterior space behind the cladding. Conditioned air is pumped through a cavity, dispersed at the ceiling, and returned at the floor.
In addition to the window walls, 362 skylights admit natural light into the building. Waves of louvers on the roof allow only indirect northern light to enter the insulated skylights, set into deep molded coffers forming oval oculi, which are in turn covered by protective fabric scrims. The gently curving coffers prevent shadows, causing the art to seemingly emerge from the walls and pedestals into high relief.
Phifer cites Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, as a key inspiration. Kahn’s concrete barrel vaults direct daylight downward into the galleries, articulating the spaces with gently dispersed light. Phifer’s design invites comparison from which neither architect suffers. The spatial articulation and detailing of each museum has been described as austere, but both were borne of steadfast logic and disciplined execution, which translates complexity into sublime simplicity.