In 1990 I was hired to be the NCMA’s chief designer. At that time East Building (as it’s now known) had been open for only seven years, and, though completed, was not the full realization of what architect Edward Durrell Stone originally envisioned. One of his renderings for East Building depicts more than twice the gallery and program space wrapped in limestone, a quarter-circle reflecting pool, and rooftop gardens in a pastoral setting.
Rendering for East Building's original plan by Edward Durrell Stone
The reality was something altogether different. I remember arriving for my interview with then-director Richard Schneiderman and his driving me past the still-active Polk Youth Detention Center—right next door to the NCMA—with its barbed wire, guard towers, and young inmates. I remember thinking, as we pulled into the NCMA’s main entrance, “There must be some mistake.”
To be truthful I wasn’t completely surprised. In fact the NCMA’s unusual site, next to a prison, had been mentioned in a design journal article I’d just read about the NCMA’s new, innovative park concept titled “Imperfect Utopia.”
The article described the foresight of my predecessor, Lida Lowery, and chief curator Susan Barnes who, in 1988 won a major National Endowment for the Arts grant to bring together a select group of artists and designers to imagine what the Museum’s enormous landscape might become. The New York–based team of renowned artist Barbara Kruger, architects Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, and landscape architect Nicholas Quennell was selected. They published the highly conceptual framework, “Imperfect Utopia,” which sought to activate the landscape of the Museum Park with art and social interaction. The plan was well known in design circles but almost unheard of in Raleigh. By the time I arrived, the plan was completely stalled. The prison operated for another 10 years.
The NCMA's East Building before the amphitheater and PICTURE THIS were installed
Eleven years in the making, ideas about art and nature evolved as did the growth of the Museum Park, beginning with the amphitheater.
In 1992 NCMA curator John Coffey and I learned that the Imperfect Utopia team was presenting our plan at MIT and decided to go. Looking for a way to catalyze the development of the Park, I invited the team to design a performance space as a collaboration among art, architecture, and landscape.
Press Play to see how the NCMA's amphitheater came into being.
PICTURE THIS in the process of being installed as part of the outdoor concert area
Barbara Kruger proposed PICTURE THIS, a series of gigantic letter forms marching across the grounds—an ironic twist on museums and performance. Architect Henry Smith-Miller said of their design, “It’s a hinge to the landscape,” the big screen literally pinned to the formidable Stone Building, reaching out to the future park. The amphitheater is full of historical references to North Carolina in what Kruger called the “textualized landscape.” The “mound” above the amphitheater (by the bike way) was piled in that location as a “lookout” to the rest of the park.
We opened the amphitheater in 1997, now a beloved home to performances each summer and a vital part of the still-evolving Museum campus.
Dan Gottlieb is director of planning and design at the NCMA.
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