Goodnight Raleigh - a look at the art, architecture, history, and people of the city at night

North Carolina’s Newest Wonder: The NCMA

I’ve had very few experiences in which I’ve been overwhelmed with the physical beauty of a man-made landscape. Seeing the new building at the North Carolina Museum of Art was just that, and then some.

Housing Works of Art

The new building represents a radical step forward in form as well as function, but it demonstrates this in a very balanced and subtle way. Standing only one story tall, it is Raleigh’s newest modern building.

Joining the likes of the Walnut Creek Wetlands Center and the Convention Center, this building is a solid demonstration of Raleigh re-entering the forefront of modern architecture. Not since the early 1960s has the area seen such adoption of modern building practices–a time when it was a “proving ground for the modernist movement“. This era was best illustrated locally by the Legislative Building, the Milton Small Office Building, the Garland Jones Building, and Capital Bank Plaza.

Future projects such as the James B. Hunt Library and the AIANC Center for Architecture and Design will further Raleigh’s movement in to the 21st century of building and landscape architecture.

Making the Most of Light and Space

With glass curtain walls and numerous skylights, the most is made of natural light to illuminate the art inside. The windows have a ceramic inlay in the glass that diffuse the light, making it softer. In addition, automatic curtains raise and lower in response to amount of natural light coming in–to avoid harsh interior glares.

Even at night, the museum’s exterior puts on a subdued light show. The fountains, sculptures, trees, and other surfaces come together to absorb, diffract, reflect, and refract the light coming from the building and on the grounds.

The structure’s mirrored edges at set lengths send bursts of natural as well as artifical light in several directions.

Specifics from the fact sheet [PDF] on how lighting is controlled:

  • A custom-designed louver system above the skylights allows only direct north light into galleries
  • All galleries are daylit from 362 skylights with diffusers and “hoops” of fabric filters
  • Fritted glass courtyard walls with custom shade and curtain systems control light
  • Varying levels of daylight penetration in galleries is designed to meet art conservation requirements
  • Two-circuit computer-controlled halogen track lighting on dimmers is coordinated with daylighting levels

Front Porches and Reflecting Pools

The most distinct feature on the exterior are the reflecting pools and railed walkways, likened to by the architect as a type of front porch. He further elaborates below:

The ancient Greeks and Romans put a porch just about anywhere they could, especially at temples! Of course, temples weren’t just religious sites. They were town centers, they were trading posts, they were meeting places where the citizens would gather to gossip and get the news, do their business but also learn what was
happening in the world. So if you think of a museum as a modern-day temple, a secular temple, a place where people gather and get information and ideas, then the plinth and the porch really resonate. In Raleigh, our version of the temple is on the ground so you’re seeing art and consuming culture in connection with the outside world, in a way that’s entirely consistent with the great Modernist ideal of bringing things down to street level, getting grounded. So at our building you’re getting grounded literally and metaphorically, you’re getting to experience art one-on-one in relationship to the world outside instead of going up a grand stair and ascending to art like it’s a sacrament.

Thomas Phifer, Lead Architect

The glass-like surface of the water, the smoothed stones that surround it, the sculptures, and the geometric forces at work in the building coalesce to create a zen-like experience.

Balance Requires Landscape

One of the the most striking features is that which is right under your feet. The fine black gravel (base, above) looks familiar enough, but feels different. The base layer was sifted and coated with an adhesive, so it’s significantly more firm and comfortable to walk on.

Protruding up from this black gravel are a series of fountains near the entrance. Above is a close-up view of a few of them.

Standing Side By Side

The new construction is referred to as the “West Building”. The “East Building” (above, right) is the original NCMA. Designed by world-renowned architect Edward Durrel Stone (also designed the NC Legislative Building), it was built during a recession and whittled down in terms of scale and detail by the state. Completed in 1983 a few years after Stone’s death, the end result was only a pale representation of what his original vision was.

The East Building was renovated as a part of the expansion, and will continue to serve the NCMA. It will house temporary exhibitions, events, and educational activities.

Once again, It’s What’s On The Inside That Counts

The museum has acquired several new works to be on display:

The Museum is actively building the collection with recent acquisitions, including a gift from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation of 30 works by Auguste Rodin, making the NCMA the leading repository of this artist’s work in the southeastern United States. A promised gift of mid- to late-20th-century art from the collection of Jim and Mary Patton includes work by Jackie Ferrara, Adolph Gottlieb, Ellsworth Kelly, Per Kirkeby, David Park, and Sean Scully, among others. Other new works of both historical and contemporary art include pieces by artists El Anatsui, Roxy Paine, Jaume Plensa, and Ursula von Rydingsvard, among others.

The Official Opening Celebration is This Weekend

You can see all of this and the art inside when the new wing of the museum officially opens to the public this weekend (April 24th and 25th). Tickets to the opening celebration are free.

Further Reading:

Special thanks to Mary Ellis for giving me a tour of the NCMA grounds.

Discuss Raleigh

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