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North Carolina Museum Of Art

Thomas Phifer and Partners

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...

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