Art in the Open: Thomas Phifer’s North Carolina Museum of Art

In a recent presentation to the American Institute of Architects, at his newly completed North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, architect Thomas Phifer opened by saying “I love being an architect.” And standing in the museum it is easy to imagine why. A Tom Phifer building is always a study in harmony, deceptively simple in form and detail, restrained and expressive at the same time. The effect is one of serene clarity that can leave you feeling as if the solution must have been obvious to him from the beginning.

In fact, for Phifer, a Columbia native and Clemson graduate, who has practiced architecture in New York City for 30 years, the journey has been anything but obvious, and has always been very hard work. Architecture, of course, is demanding and most architects will tell you they work hard. But what set Phifer apart are relentlessly high standards and an abiding faith in process and craft.

Reflected most recently in NCMA and an addition to Clemson University’s College of Architecture, under construction, is a trajectory that first appeared in the late 1980’s as Phifer took on a significant role as design partner in the New York office of Richard Meier & Partners. Under his direction, the work shifted to a more elemental language. Simple rectangles and cylinders emerged, buffered by layers of free-standing planes, modulating light and framing views. Always striking, Meier buildings returned more clearly to their Bauhaus roots and, gradually, white aluminum exteriors gave way to expanses of glazing and diaphanous roofs that delicately filtered daylight, bringing it indoors, responding to nature in intimate real time.

More than a decade later, NCMA carries forward this trajectory with a design that, experientially, far exceeds the sum of its parts. Upon approach, it is as if the building is enjoying its own understatement, waiting for you to get closer. What appears to be little more than a warehouse clad in pleats of brushed aluminum slowly reveals deep slices in the façade, lined with translucent glazing that reflects more than it reveals.

Moving closer, the aluminum skin suddenly flashes a reflective ripple in which you fleetingly see yourself amidst art objects set in the landscape. The main entry canopy, an open- air hall of semi-reflective glass, creates a monumental and increasingly mysterious effect, visually expanding while producing ghostly reflections of visitors moving in and out, a kinetic portrait gallery, superimposed over glimpses indoors.

Inside, the museum is a complete surprise, embracing the very site it had first appeared to turn away from. Spaces flow breezily, awash in softened, ever-changing daylight. Floating wall panels subtly organize exhibits, framing vistas and encouraging wandering. What had earlier seemed to be slices in the façade reveal themselves as a series of animated courtyards filled with fountains and art, nature’s finger reaching deep inside the box, inviting you to come outside. There is almost a wedding tent quality. Art is everywhere and one gets the sense that a celebration is about to begin.

It is simultaneously relaxing and exciting to move through this building and yet at no point does it overshadow the art. It is, in fact, as if the building is there to gently introduce nature to art, step into the background and allow us to enjoy the result. Robust yet silent, it is minimalism at its best. This is not a building that demands that you notice it, and when Phifer calls it “the People’s Building”, saying he hopes that someday the landscape goes completely wild and engulfs it, you believe him.

Designing buildings that primarily
serve their purpose by resisting architectural gesture in deference to a rigorous design process is, in fact, fundamental to Phifer’s work. At its core, it is a pragmatic approach, a matter of solving problems rather than indulging egos, creating art by asking the right questions, making good choices, and paying attention to detail. It is a process Phifer describes as humbling. He says the harder he works, the harder it gets. It’s clear that this is because he’s asking increasingly difficult questions, seeking increasingly elusive answers.

Inevitably, this results in even simpler, more subtle solutions. And in fact, what can be practically confounding, especially to other architects, is how simple it often does appear to be. Although Phifer, himself, does not emphasize the significance of his own sketches, watching him sketch with his design team is illuminating. There is an almost meditative quality to it, as if he has removed himself in order to give the pen freedom of expression, outlining the margins and then slowly zeroing in on the problem. The result is invariably a few flowing lines that communicate much, a plan, elevation or detail that sets a direction, a light touch that says it all.

Phifer also discusses his building in simple terms. He says he wanted the museum to be one with its site and accessible to everyone, an open pavilion on one floor, set in nature. He says the fact that admission is free made it possible to enter the building from multiple points, hence the introduction of courtyards. He talks about hours spent in the Pantheon in Rome, observing the sun grazing the floor through its famous oculus above, and how that influenced his approach to the roof system. He mentions that he wanted the artwork to be free of enclosed galleries, visible from multiple points of view. And he refers to the technology utilized to achieve all of this in the most straightforward way.

This outlook permeates the design of the museum down to the last detail. Looking closely at the drawings, produced in partnership with Raleigh- based Pierce Brinkley Cease + Lee, the most overwhelming impression is that it all just looks so stunningly simple. There is almost no There there.

The design abounds with examples of this, but one detail is instructive. All buildings have “diffusers,” grilles through which conditioned air flows in and out. At NCMA this is handled at the top and bottom of the building’s primary interior partitions. Air is supplied through a very narrow, continuous slot at the top of each wall and is returned through a similar slot at the bottom. There is only the slot, no metal trim, no grille – just narrow continuous gaps, separating wall from ceiling and floor.
On its own, this detail is ordinary, but it is one small part of an important domino effect. Subtly, these slots create the impression that these partitions serve no structural purpose. The walls appear detached, like freestanding screens, there just to hang art on. In fact, these screens hide a grid of columns and serve as air plenums, eliminating the need for conventional ductwork. The net effect is that the ceiling appears to literally float, free of columns, free of ducts, like a sheltering cloud detached from the building below.
There are many similar parts and pieces to this building, materials and systems that are well chosen, but unremarkable taken in one at a time. Yet, as with a Bach prelude, it is the way they are put together that makes all the difference, a few important choices to start with, combined repeatedly to tremendous effect.

Wandering through the building, touching its surfaces, staring at the ceiling, one is reminded of two famous phrases once coined by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the renowned modernist, and one of Phifer’s heroes: “God is in the details” and “Less is more”. A generation of architects has come and gone since then, and the great master’s influence has waxed and waned. But Phifer still heeds his lessons well. One can almost see Mies standing in the lobby, his trademark cigar in hand, greeting visitors with a smile and saying “See what I mean?”

Link to Thomas Phifer and Partners website

from undefined magazine – Book 15
Printed March 16, 2012
Story: Tom Savory  Photography:  Scott Frances/
©2010-2012 undefined magazine

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