Thank you for virtually visiting West Building and the Architecture of Light. Our next and final two virtual exhibitions will release on January 15, 2021.
Phifer Show (AoL)
Visible on the rooftop, custom louvers shade glass skylights, blocking direct sunlight. Linear skylights run the length of the building. Protective film, between layers of glass, blocks ultraviolet radiation from entering the building.
Below, 360 elliptical openings in ceiling coffers are designed to provide the calculated level of evenly distributed light into the galleries. Each coffer opening has two fixed filters: a polycarbonate layer diffuses light, and changeable fabric below allows staff to adjust the final level for specific kinds of art.
Stone sculpture, for instance, can tolerate more light than oil paintings and much more than polychrome wood objects. The building’s glass walls and shading devices filter ultraviolet radiation and minimize exposure while providing limited views to the landscape.
Daylight availability varies through the year as a function of season, time of day, and weather. This scatter diagram is a plot of measured weather data from Raleigh-Durham and illustrates variation through the year. Each dot corresponds to a single measurement hour, combined here to guide the building’s design, balancing available light and safe exposure of the collection.
In daylit galleries we experience color in art differently than in artificially lit spaces. In the dynamic light of West, we also feel passing clouds, changes in season, and time of day, reinforcing connections between art and nature. One might reasonably ask, Can’t exposure to daylight degrade art? If not carefully controlled, it does, but this building has layers of controls to prevent degradation. Phifer’s daylight concept depended on the expertise of specialists at Arup (New York and London offices), who created models used by the architects.
The core idea behind Arup’s technical design was a series of protective layers to transmit indirect light (sky brightness) through the roof and into the galleries. It is designed to provide roughly fifty percent of needed visible light in winter and up to one hundred percent during brighter summer months.
To allow light to change with the environment while protecting the collection from overexposure, Arup calculated an “annual light budget” based on computer modeling and full-scale mock-ups. These tests provided data to specify the size of skylight openings and layers of filters to control and diffuse the available light. West Building is still among a handful of major museum buildings in the United States where daylight shines on collections that span from antiquities to the art of today.
The NCMA’s dedicated team of curators, designers, registrars, and art handlers played an enormous role in the project’s success. For two years staff worked with a twenty-four-foot- long model to plan the layout of the collection in the new galleries. Installing the collection and commissioned artworks in the landscape was a monumental feat accomplished with stunning care, the staff dealing with such challenges as a delayed art elevator. The first deliveries from East Building to West Building had to be hand-carried across the Plaza. Ultimately the building was completed and installed within budget and on time for its April 2010 public opening.
Greenway bridge opens, connecting NCMA to regional system, 2001
Photograph: Dan Gottlieb
Museum Park Theater, designed by Kruger, Smith-Miller+Hawkinson, Quennell, 1997
Photograph: American Arials
2016 Park expansion transformed remnant of former prison site.
First campus master plan, “Imperfect Utopia: A Park for the New World,” Barbara Kruger, Smith-Miller+Hawkinson, Nicholas Quinnell, 1989
Edward Durell Stone’s expansive design for the new Museum, circa 1977; ultimately just 45% was built.
Historic marker on Blue Ridge Road
Museum site, West Building, and remnants of Polk, 2010
The NCMA began with citizen efforts in the 1920s and was catapulted by a historic 1947 legislative appropriation for art. The Museum’s move from downtown Raleigh to this site on Blue Ridge Road was controversial—doubly so when built behind the still-operating Polk Youth Detention Center.
Photograph: Dan Gottlieb
Labor advertisement to build Camp Polk, circa 1919
New NCMA opens behind Polk Youth Prison
Guard tower, 2003
Photograph: Dan Gottlieb
WWI tank training on future prison site, circa 1917
Photograph: State Archives of North Carolina
The North Carolina Museum of Art is a museum within a park, an authentically public space that serves as the home for this publicly owned art collection. West Building embraces that democratic notion with open-plan design, connections to daylight and nature, and free admission. The building is the elegant, formal complement to the recreational informality of the Museum Park and its 164 acres—one of the largest art museum campuses in the world.
The NCMA began with citizen efforts in the 1920s and was catapulted by a historic 1947 legislative appropriation for art. The Museum’s move from downtown Raleigh to this site on Blue Ridge Road was controversial—doubly so when built behind the still-operating Polk Youth Detention Center. Adding challenges, architect Edward Durell Stone’s (b. 1902, Fayetteville, Ark.; d. 1978, New York) over-budget, 400,000 square-foot vision was reduced by more than half, leaving insufficient spaces for the collection and Museum operations from the day it opened in 1983. The move to Blue Ridge Road held the potential for an expansive, innovative museum concept with land reallocated from the prison. Since 1996 the NCMA has incrementally transformed the former state prison site into a new kind of museum, blending the formal gallery experiences found in this building with performances and informal encounters with art in the Museum Park.
- Daylighting offsets 50% of art lighting
- High-efficiency chillers reduce use of electricity
- Carbon dioxide monitors control volume of outside air intake
- Water-to-water heat pumps recover heat from refrigeration exhaust
- VAV controls system performance to reduce energy consumption
- Water economizer uses cooling towers to cool in winter
- Continuous energy monitoring
- Commissioning of building systems improves long-term operation
- Opaque walls are thermally improved, insulated, precast concrete
- Drought-tolerant and native plant species
- Water-efficient landscaping reduces need for irrigation
- Storm water retention reduces run-off and erosion
- Site lighting minimizes glare
Storm water runoff from impermeable surfaces causes erosion and stream pollution, a global issue stemming from development. The NCMA’s campus is now completely managed, a campaign that began with the design of West Building and the Museum Pond. Rain
is collected from the roof and paved surfaces through biofiltration gardens and collected in a 90,000-gallon buried cistern and used for irrigation. Over-capacity storm water flows through the pond’s native-planted terraces, an enormous biofilter reducing the destructive high-energy force of channelized runoff. Combined, these systems prevent downstream neighborhood flooding and degradation of streams by releasing sediment-free water toward the Neuse River and Atlantic Ocean.
Systems designed to reduce energy and water consumption and manage storm water runoff from the two buildings’ fifty-acre site were a priority for the Museum and integral to the project design.
Allowing daylight to illuminate West’s galleries was central to Phifer’s concept from the outset, fitting hand-in-glove with engineering the high-performance building envelope and environmental controls to both protect art and conserve energy. The building is designed for viewing art with only daylight during summer months. Utilizing sun-supplied ambient light reduces by almost half the need for electric lighting, reducing load on mechanical systems year-round. Since 2010 the NCMA has upgraded the original electric spotlighting to LED, reducing energy consumption by eighty percent.
Landscape architect Walter Havener of Surface 678 (Durham, N.C.) collaborated with Phifer throughout the project to create a living bridge between the building’s formal geometry and the Museum Park. Crisply detailed courtyard landscapes insert deeply into these galleries. For example linear pools align from the east, emerging as the organizing force in the Rodin Court. Hand-crafted black walls echo gallery walls and suggest enclosure while encouraging movement into the larger landscape.
Havener also worked closely with Museum staff to contour the landscape for the Rodin collection (a major gift from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation) and the monumental sculptures commissioned for the building by artists Roxy Paine (Askew, 2010) and Ursula von Rydingsvard (Ogromna, 2010). Permanent installations, the large sculptures were integral to the landscape’s final composition. Their materials and scale against the building’s mass and rhythmic exterior panels lend additional force to both art and architecture. Maple trees planted in a grid over mounds are set in tension with sinuous paths that connect the building to the Park. Havener’s transitional landscape was a tour de force, embodying the Museum’s overarching design philosophy to marry formal and informal experiences campus-wide. Since 2010 the young maples, elms, and birches have grown taller than the building, shifting the relationship between the built and the natural toward Phifer’s stated vision to create “a building sitting quietly in the landscape.”
One controversial aspect of the building, early on, was its minimalist cladding, comprising 230 twenty-four-foot-tall, anodized, aluminum plates. The plates are individually attached
at a subtle angle (with a highly reflective stainless-steel insert) to super-insulated, precast concrete sections that form the building’s environmental envelope, lending to its unique quality and quiet presence in the landscape. Early criticism that the building looked “like a warehouse” (or worse) soon subsided as the landscape matured and appreciation of its understated nature grew. Here one can see the evolution of Phifer’s concepts for the building’s cladding.
To achieve the goal of streamlining the building to “art and light,” Phifer and his team paid enormous attention to detail. Art walls, for instance, incorporate one-inch slots at top and bottom for air delivery and return to eliminate visible air vents. Complex engineering integrated security and environmental monitoring, sprinklers, and track lighting into two-and-a-half-inch gaps between each of the coffers. Exit signs and electrical outlets were all carefully integrated into wall construction to reduce visual clutter.
From as early as John Soane’s Dulwich Gallery (building completed 1814, London) to today’s glass-clad museums, architects have experimented with daylight and art. Phifer’s office deeply researched a wide array of classic and modern precedents to develop the NCMA’s unique design for daylight and optimal dimensions for the collection. A structural twenty-six-foot column grid with sixteen-foot-high walls was ultimately settled on. The curving ceiling coffer and skylight system make the interior feel much taller.
The NCMA project was first proposed as a series of pavilions connected with glass passages reaching toward the Park. Phifer’s vision to set the building in the Park was scaled back in the post–9-11 recession, tightening the scheme into a unified building while retaining the ethos
of embracing nature. These diagrams and those displayed on the monitor depict iterations of that concept, resulting in the final, simplified building scheme.
Raised in South Carolina and a graduate of Clemson University, Tom Phifer founded Thomas Phifer and Partners (TPP) in 1996 as an interdisciplinary office devoted to a distinctly modernist philosophy: “The common essence of timeless buildings is simplicity.” Though this firm was young, former Director Larry Wheeler and Dan Gottlieb believed he would bring the sensibility of architectural lightness to complement Edward Durell Stone’s solid 1983 building. Completed in 2010, West Building was TPP’s first completed major civic project and has since influenced their practice’s museum design.
Over the decade working with Phifer and his team, project architect Gabriel Smith, Walt Havener, and Raleigh- based architects Pearce Brinkley Cease and Lee prevailed despite recessions and budget constraints. The scheme evolved from a series of connected pavilions to the cohesive statement on art and light that West became, balancing requirements of the collection with Phifer’s vision for minimalist form and relentless attention to detail. Ultimately, the open arrangement of spaces and circulation with minimal visual distractions resulted in the success of these elegant galleries—now widely recognized as a modern architectural masterpiece. Like the landscape that surrounds it, West was designed as a living system, a flexible arrangement of spaces inviting periodic rethinking of connections among art works across time and cultures. Indeed, in response to West Building’s open nature, the NCMA curatorial team is currently planning an ambitious reinstallation to offer fresh perspectives on the “People’s Collection.”
Light shifts in these galleries with each passing cloud, change of season, and time of day. Daylight is elemental to the sense of transparency felt throughout the building’s interior, essentially an open plan allowing views between galleries and across time and cultures. The building’s five courtyards interject deeply into the galleries, creating a meandering route from ancient to modern with garden views. Beyond the courtyards, the building sits quietly within a formal landscape that rolls toward the greater informality of the Museum Park.
The translucent, diaphanous qualities of West Building stand in stark contrast to the original Museum building across the Plaza, designed by the mid-twentieth-century architect Edward Durell Stone (completed in 1983). In architectural terms Stone’s opaque black box galleries (where light is static) and Phifer’s dynamic white cube could not be more different. Yet the two actually share modernist roots in their bold repetition of geometric forms. In the decade since this building’s inauguration in 2010, Thomas Phifer and Partners have won important museum commissions, and the studio continues to explore and refine ideas first explored and realized here at the NCMA.
With the perspective of ten years, the NCMA is celebrating West Building’s completion and reflecting on its architectural achievement, its significance in the development of the Museum’s campus, and its impact on contemporary museum design. Architect Thomas Phifer’s concept to quietly embrace art in ever-changing daylight was disciplined in purpose and resulted in an understated and elegant building for this state’s great collection.
—Daniel P. Gottlieb, Director of Planning, Design, and the Museum Park