Thomas Phifer spends his days in a white world—a loftlike office with white walls, white ceilings, white bookcases, and white shades on the windows. His staff works in a communal setting at computer terminals spaced regularly along 42-foot-long work tables, also white. The effect, even on heavily overcast days, is a soft glow inside the studio that seems to nurture and inform the everyday activities of architectural practice.
And that's how Phifer likes it.
After 11 years as head of his own practice—following a lengthy stint as senior partner at Richard Meier and Partners, during which he directed 27 major commissions—Phifer is producing significant public and private buildings under the shingle of his own New York firm, Thomas Phifer and Partners. Completed projects include the Workstage office building prototype for furniture company Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Mich., and the Taghkanic House in Taghkanic, N.Y., a graceful steeland-glass pavilion set amid trees. A compelling slate of works in progress includes a sculptural office tower in Seoul, South Korea; conversion of the landmark Castle Clinton in Lower Manhattan, N.Y., into a performing arts venue; and a new U.S. courthouse in Salt Lake City, procured under the GSA Design Excellence Program.
In each case, Phifer and his partners—Don Cox, Greg Reaves, and Steve Dayton —demonstrate a profound sensitivity to light and produce architecture that is comprised determinedly of simple but sophisticated gestures. “We consciously aim for simplicity,” he says, “because it is our experience that simplicity leads to economy, efficiency, and improved performance.” But don't let that language fool you: Phifer is not the kind of designer who focuses unduly on shading coefficients and BTUs at the expense of aesthetics. Deep down, he is all about the art.
A South Carolina native who received his architectural education at Clemson University, Phifer migrated to New York, where he apprenticed at Gwathmey Siegel and Associates before moving to Meier's office in 1986. He credits his work on buildings in Europe with elevating his respect for the importance of environmental factors in design. “The laws there require you to put people close to windows so that they can get natural light and natural ventilation,” he explains. That experience made Phifer pay attention to lowering heating and cooling loads, using new strategies to shade buildings, and harnessing the earth's geothermal resources. As a result, he says, “we take our cues from the environment.”
From small-scale projects, such as the Spencertown House—a residence in upstate New York that won a 2007 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects—to impressive institutional complexes, such as the North Carolina Museum of Art, now under construction in Raleigh, N.C., Phifer constantly strives to merge his buildings with the natural landscape.
“For so long, buildings were brutal—they cut people off from nature,” he says. “What we want to do is to open that experience up to the changing atmosphere of the light, the changing seasons, the changing time, so that you mark time through changing light. It really is all about light, and how to get people to be part of their own environment.”
Clearly, Phifer's interest in light is a means to achieve the broader goal of buildings that strike a balance between the natural and the man-made. And to create architecture that is truly molded by environmental determinants, Phifer insists on a different process. “It can't be done within the tradition of architect as autocrat. The requisite know-how is too complex, the necessary skills too diverse,” he says.
His solution, then, is to create an egalitarian, collaborative process involving practitioners from a variety of disciplines, from structural engineers to materials researchers to ecological scientists—even manufacturers, whom he says have too often been kept out of initial problem solving. Referring to the North Carolina Museum of Art, he says, “We couldn't have made the museum alone. So collaboration is a huge part of what we do.”
City Lights Design Competition, New York
More than 200 designers submitted entries to an international competition, staged in 2004 by the City of New York, for a new streetlight design that would enhance the city's dated catalog of street-lighting options. The winning proposal—and ideas for its fabrication and installation, developed during a finalist phase—came from an interdisciplinary team headed by Phifer's firm.
Until then, the city's 40-year-old standard had been the ubiquitous “cobra head” die-cast aluminum luminaire. Phifer's team proposed a sleek, cast-aluminum arm fixed atop an extruded aluminum pole—a graceful marriage of function and aesthetics. The pole's organically shaped extrusion integrates eight slots that serve as continuous attachment rails for street signs, traffic signs, additional lighting, traffic signals, traffic control boxes, or pedestrian call buttons. The streetlight's base and access door also were retooled for ease of maintenance, but the key innovation was the use of LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and photovoltaics. “Rather than participating in a contest that was only about aesthetics, we wanted to make a technical innovation,” Phifer explains.
LEDs offer many advantages. Phifer's team recommended a modular system, with four linear segments of LED arrays grouped together with simple connections. Each segment has its own acrylic optical lens to distribute light. “We found that by having the LEDs in a line, we could get incredible coverage of the street,” says Phifer. Maintenance costs are lowered because the lamps are long-lasting (15 to 20 years) and use less electricity. The modular design will also allow segments to be replaced easily as LED technology advances.
Collaborating with the engineering firm Transsolar, the team developed a transparent polycarbonate sunray collector sheet to be placed above the luminaire housing. In theory, Phifer says, the photovoltaic system could feed energy into the power grid during the day and consume an equal or lesser amount at night. It's a forwardlooking idea, because as the costs of photovoltaic panels decrease and nonrenewable energy resources deplete, solar panel use will become common. “We are right on the cutting edge,” Phifer says. “Every week that goes by, the technology moves further ahead.” Under current city government plans, the fixtures will be installed at the World Trade Center site and then at Lincoln Center before they pop up elsewhere in New York.
Project: City Lights Design Competition, New York
Architect: Thomas Phifer and Partners, New York—Thomas Phifer (principal); Christoph Timm, Michael Fei, Joseph Sevene (design team)
Structural Engineer: Werner Sobek New York, New York—Werner Sobek (principal); Wolfgang Rudolph (project engineer)
Lighting Design: Office for Visual Interaction—Jean Sundin, Enrique Peiniger (principals)
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, N.C.
Having quickly outgrown the facility designed by Edward Durrell Stone and finished after his death in 1983, leaders of the North Carolina Museum of Art began hatching a plan seven years ago to replace it—or at least relegate it to secondary status. They conducted an international search for an architect to design a major expansion, and in 2002 Phifer emerged as the selection committee's top choice. His plan for an austere pavilion —long, low, and rectangular, wrapped in a skin of satin-finished steel and topped with an undulating roof punctured by skylights—is now taking shape at a cost of $62 million (for the building and surrounding landscape).
When completed in 2009, the new building will provide 45 percent more exhibition space for the museum's collection. Yet for all its 127,000 square feet, it will rise just 26 feet high, a softly luminous volume with abstract reflections of land and sky on its metallic surface. “Instead of using glass, we are investigating how steel can actually be used to create an ethereal effect,” Phifer explains. To give the stainless steel panels a uniform satin finish, Phifer plans to bead-blast them—bombarding them with glass beads to soften their appearance.
By allowing fingerlike gardens to penetrate the museum's rectangular footprint, Phifer is striving to blend architecture with nature. “That's the reason we are trying to find a material that will begin to absorb nature, rather than sticking an object in the landscape,” he says. “We are trying to find something that reacts and changes in the light, rather than something that simply is the same in all light.”
The one-story-high scheme stemmed from a desire to create ideal viewing conditions for the art. Phifer wanted contemplative spaces defined by good proportions, human scale, connections to nature, and controlled natural light. “A single-story building allowed us to deliver the maximum amount of all of these attributes, especially controlled top light,” he says.
Indeed, the linchpin of the gallery design is the dynamic ceiling, formed by a matrix of fiberglass coffers, each approximately 26 feet by 6 1/2 feet. For more than 18 months, Phifer collaborated with daylighting engineers at Arup to fine-tune the coffer design. Almost 100 computer-generated models were studied before arriving at the optimal curved shape of the coffer and the 4-foot-by-6-foot size of the elliptical oculus—the goal being gentle, uniform illumination. A defining architectural feature, the coffers will also lend order to the gallery space.