The Landscape and the Museum
In the 10 years since the North Carolina Museum of Art opened its Joseph M. Bryan, Jr. Theater in the Museum Park, much of the attention the museum attracted, locally and nationally, focused on its 164-acre campus on Raleigh’s western fringe. It is, as the museum likes to note, the largest art museum park in the country, and it has a notable pedigree. The 2,500-seat amphitheater nudges the “H” of PICTURE THIS — massive, sans-serif caps inscribed on the landscape in various media. This was Barbara Kruger’s contribution to a 1988 landscape plan titled “Imperfect Utopia,” conceived for the museum along with architects Laurie Hawkinson and Henry Smith-Miller and landscape architect Nicholas Quennell.
The idea behind the Krugerian exhortation was to imagine new contexts for art, beyond the typical gallery spaces of the museum’s bland brick home, designed by Edward Durrell Stone and built in 1983. And the museum has been busy doing just that, lacing the property with hiking trails and dotting those with permanent and temporary art projects. The theater, presenting live performances and movies, has become a mainstay of warm-weather entertainment in the Research Triangle region.
So it is not surprising that in planning an addition to the Stone building, the museum would once again make the landscape a key feature. Construction is under way on a 127,000-square foot pavilion, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York to bring as much of the outdoors inside as possible. The satin-finished stainless-steel rectangle is punctured by glass-walled plazas visitors can access from inside.
Set across a plaza from the original building, Phifer’s pavilion will boost exhibition space by 45 percent. It also promises to make gallery-strolling the dynamic experience that the Stone structure never quite delivered. Its vistas will be lighted naturally, through an innovative roof system of rectangular coffers that filter daylight into the spaces below. Phifer worked with Ove Arup & Partners to devise the system, but his light-emitting roof reaches back through Louis Kahn to the Pantheon. Like Kahn, whose Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth was an inspiration, Phifer studied at the American Academy in Rome.
Although it will anchor an art park, the new building is anything but sculptural. The hallmark of its modest presence will be the interior experience. Phifer does not see himself striking a blow for the non-heroic, but he acknowledges his building “doesn’t shout or reach for obscure forms, gratuitous forms, to define it.”
The Museum Park will offer plenty of opportunities for artists and sculptors to make their marks, however. Dan Gottlieb, NCMA’s deputy director for planning and design, says the museum aims for a new permanent work in the park every year or two, and roughly three “ephemeral” pieces a year. Lappas + Havener’s master plan update, he says, retains the original plan’s “layering” of formal and informal experiences but sets new goals for the projects the museum initiates in the park.
The park is part, too, of a larger plan to invert the idea of an art museum, making it more accessible, more a part of the daily experience of the city, with whose greenway system it connects. “We’re not thinking of it as just another sculpture park,” says Gottlieb. “We are taking the museum off of that pedestal.”