I’m in North Carolina this week, mostly on Emerald Isle (where the water really is clear and green and 80 degrees), and finally got a chance to see the new North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, by Thomas Phifer & Partners, which opened this spring.
My first impression was wow, I can’t believe they built this in the Triangle. I know that sounds snobby, but despite the area’s long modernist history, you can count the number of successful local contemporary architects on two hands. It just isn’t that sophisticated an architectural audience, and the new NCMA, which falls squarely into the inconspicuous consumption, or deluxe warehouse, school of current museum-making, is startling in its rigor. My dad is going to kill me for saying this, but it blows Duke’s Nasher Museum, a lazy, bombastic atrium-as-architecture by Rafael Vinoly, out of the water. And it makes me a little sad that the major critics will journey to Europe, but not to North Carolina, to review the latest.
From the museum entrance, where a hot pink sign with the spiffy new identity has been mounted on top of the old carved granite monolith, the extension looks like it might be a set of construction trailers, light and blockish. The drive takes you around the block, and as you glide by, the block opens up. Courtyards of various sizes are cut in on each side, organized around water, plants, and monochrome sculpture (by Rodin, von Rydingsvard, Paine, and others). The building’s exterior carapace is a series of matte aluminum fins, that initially look flat, but register as a zigzag roofline. As you circle round, the fins’ brightly mirrored return appears, reflecting your car, the grass, the sky.
It’s that combination of minimalism and flash that syncs perfectly with my personal aesthetic. Phifer hasn’t forgotten to have a little fun with it. Mirrored metal reappears in the long, Miesian entrance canopy, which solves the problem of entering a modular modernist building by essentially building another one as welcome. Flash reappears in the choice of sculpted oval skylights to fill the rectangular ceiling grid. The oval brings with it the late 1960s sensuality of some Bunshaft. It avoids the fussy technicality of late Piano. In the few galleries where you see four or five ovals in a row, stretching toward the outer wall, they give the building the sense of ceremony of Kahn.
The collection, motley but quite good, looks infinitely refreshed. In the old brick Edward Larrabee Barnes barn, the period stuff was in period rooms of burgundy and blue. Here, Greek and Dutch still life and Judaica and Yoruban headdresses are installed in separate bays, but all on white walls, and all lit by the same lovely, sparkling combination of artificial and filtered light. The only pieces that look a bit squished are things like my favorite Frank Stella, a big one begging for a corporate lobby from the Protractor Series.
What the building doesn’t do is establish Tom Phifer, long of Richard Meier’s office, as a major talent. While the building is not Meierian, it is derivative of the holy trinity Kahn-Ando-Piano (of the Menil Collection era). But without a certain modernist rigor. It bothered me that the exterior fins, with their mirrored returns, were not reflected on the interior. The returns seemed designed to create thin stripes of light on a polished concrete floor, but were really just fancy clapboards. Likewise the glass interior walls, facing the many clever cut-in courtyards (why should California and Texas have all the inside-outside museums?). The glass is fritted in the same seersucker stripes as that at the new MoMA, and then there are the de rigeur motorized sunshades, and then there are diaphanous curtains, and then there are solid walls on which art is hung. If having glass walls in an art museum requires four layers of protection for the art, maybe another material would be a better choice, no?
I have other quibbles—the fountains aren’t quite up to the level of the Ando pool at the Pulitzer Foundation; a little more concrete or wood, in the manner of Kahn, might have improved the materials palette; shouldn’t there be a cafe, or even a LocoPops cart outside, so that we could dwell in the courts? In the nicely curated gift shop I saw what may be my favorite piece of identity merch: throw pillows with abstract patterns based on the ovoid letterforms, based on the ovoid skylights. No designer credited, an oversight, and I’m still searching for a picture.