Now that the recent spate of “signature” museum buildings seems to be sputtering to some sort of end, those formally ambitious structures dissipating from the succès fou of Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim to the sometimes bizarre confections by Libeskind or Calatrava or Randall Stout, it is particularly refreshing to consider a sober, intelligent and elegant work such as the new orthogonal galleries for the North Carolina Museum of Art. Designed by the New York architect, Thomas Phifer, the new building doesn’t contort or fragment or expose its innards to a prurient outside world; it displays art in a comprehensible sequence of space, suffused in modulated natural light. The new galleries and the facility they largely supplant exist as fragmentary elements in an extensive and attractive parkland west of downtown Raleigh. This is The South; or, more correctly, The New South with its rapid, often rapacious, ex-urban development. The earlier opaque and uninviting block is only part of the museum structure envisaged by Edward Durell Stone (1904-1978) and completed to a reduced budget after his death. That dark brick chunk now accommodates touring exhibitions and offices. It occupies the easterly boundary of a generous forecourt shared with the Phifer-designed galleries – a single-story pavilion to the north. The outer surface of this new rectilinear box is also opaque yet stands out due to its sleekness, delicacy and reflectivity. The orthogonal volume is punctured by several deep courts, open-ended patios planted with indigenous species and lined in taut membranes of floor-to-ceiling glass. This mixture of technological finesse and delight in nature – new planting includes American elms, magnolia and river birch – establishes an aesthetic and a modus operandi that is both formally progressive and ecologically sensitive. Landscape is valued as much as architectural rhetoric or overt representation. Realized in collaboration with Pierce Brinkley Cease + Lee of Raleigh, the new building is in fact the third key structure for the North Carolina museum. South of the forecourt, where the ground falls away to forest trails and sculpture in the park, is an amphitheatre for music and film realized in the late 1990s by New York architects Smith-Miller + Hawkinson in collaboration with the artist Barbara Kruger. Down there across the ground surface, in amusingly different media, giant letters spell out the exhortation: Picture This. That assemblage from a decade ago has a Downtown New York edginess. The new building also results from New York design culture, in Phifer’s case several years in the office of Richard Meier and, in subsequent private practice, through the refinement of his own High Modernist sensibility. For residential retreats in tony Dutchess and Columbia Counties, to the north of Manhattan, Phifer has situated sharp luminous volumes in the bucolic, rolling landscape. In North Carolina, similar tactics are discernible on an expanded scale. At first the new walls may appear monolithic and rather grey. However, on closer inspection, as ambient light adjusts and settles, these walls are revealed as a particularly exquisite carapace. The outer wrapper consists entirely of tall contiguous panels of anodized aluminum formed in the largest fabrication baths available in the United States. They lean very slightly and are canted in plan such that the building evokes not some sealed and predetermined box but, rather, a temporal assemblage that plays a kind of shadow game with the sky and surrounding park. In the gill-like overlap between panels, narrow vertical gaps are lined in polished stainless steel, providing a perceptual tease. Visitors access the new pavilion through one of the long, indented courts, inside a skeletal pergola of stainless steel members and planes of mirrored glass that echoes or channels the work of another U.S. artist, Dan Graham. There are hints of a Hall of Mirrors (an industrial Versailles?). Nevertheless the entryway is essentially casual, as befits a reading of Phifer’s project as a pavilion in its park. Once inside, visitors are immediately at the center of a surprisingly big building, at a kind of crossroads with information desks to the left, an attractive café to the right, and glimpses of other incised linear patios bringing the outside world in from all four cardinal points. There’s art: large colorful canvasses and Rodin sculptures and a mural of spiraling twigs in the café. That may seem as the most obvious thing to immediately encounter at an art museum; yet increasingly museum administrators feel the urge to clutter and clog a visitor’s initial experience with stores and technical paraphernalia and security booths. Phifer was lucky that many such requirements could be allocated to the pre-existing Stone building (he provided a linking tunnel for museum staff) and that the museum does not charge admission. Thus visitors can amble between galleries and patios at their ease. The ceiling is more than simply the building’s fifth façade – it both protects the museum’s precious contents and makes them come alive. The taut soffit consists of modular lights made of white fiberglass, oculi that ascend from a constant orthogonal grid (or net) to oval apertures that admit daylight. Inside this billowing upper membrane, various scrims control the quantity of light admitted. A vital decision was to position this perforated raft of a ceiling high above the floor surface. The light is therefore not direct or funneled; it diffuses in the air well above the visitors’ heads and the works of art. Typical partition walls (with 1-inch gaps to top and bottom for air management), the metal jambs of portals between galleries (some house electrical equipment), the diaphanous curtains, and many pieces of furniture are uniformly white. There is nothing unusual about that in the context of recent gallery design. What is remarkable is the quality of light seeping in from above and, peripherally, from the deep courtyards, some used for the display of sculpture. These indentations instigate a pleasingly serpentine interior promenade, allowing for visitors to get momentarily lost in specific pockets of gallery space, to be at one with the art on view. It’s something of a surprise to learn that the glass elevations to these long patios (fjords?) are similar in total length to the rest of the museum exterior. The glass is fritted to control heat build-up. The geometric order of the fenestration, the plan form of the patios, and the design of the ground surface all suggest a synergy between the inner and outer worlds. Phifer’s building may at first appear to be introverted, isolated on its site. However a visit to this highly tailored structure reveals instead a Cartesian ambition, as if the interior planes extend out into the natural world as much as that world intervenes on the built object.