The building, which is really five rectangular structures arranged in an irregular circle connected by an atrium, is a little smaller than we expected. It is nicely nestled in the woods there along Campus Drive, but once you're inside, there's not enough taking advantage of the views out. Granted, we didn't make the drive from Chapel Hill to look out the window, but we felt that better views could have been had. Although there's lots of natural light from the windows that do exist between the five "pods" and in the ceiling, the building feels massive--Janet sald "cavernous"--rather than light.
David Dillon, architecture critic of the Dallas News, calls the ceiling "clunky."
Compared to the sublime lightness of Renzo Piano's vaults in Dallas [he designed the Nasher Sculpture Center], it has all the elegance of a train wreck, with massive intersecting beams and thick mullions, like a floating Mark di Suvero sculpture. It may be the price of a columnless public space below, but the solution lacks precision and refinement.
Dillon is just not a fan of the design at all. About the arrangement of the five rectangular structures, he says they "reach out into the landscape like clenched fists." But unless you arrive by helicopter, I don't really see that. I think that within the constraints of the terrain and probably budget, the architect, Rafael Viñoly, came up with a design that serves quite well. Not as successful as his University of Chicago business school project perhaps, where he met the challenge of standing up to Frank Lloyd Wright, but distinctive and functional.
There is only one entrance, via a gently sloping sidewalk, and for now at least, it is graced by one of Patrick Doherty's delightful "environmental sculptures."
The arrangement of the gallery structures around an atrium has one advantage: you don't get lost. This is a manageable museum. Actually only three of the five "pods" are galleries: one is an auditorium, and another, with the gift shop in the front, is I suppose meeting and office space. One gallery tells the story of the Nasher collection, well illustrated with some of their best modern treasures, including Andy Warhol portraits of Mrs. Nasher and the three daughters. Another highlights Duke's permanent collection.
Janet and I found the third exhibit the most interesting. A temporary exhibit, it's called "The Forest: Politics, Poetics and Practice." A whole lot of it--ironically, Janet thought--is photographs of the forest, but they are incredible photographs, some of them enormous cibachrome prints. (Exception: two black-and-whites. They look like the war in Vietnam. In fact, the photos were taken by a Vietnamese woman who was born in 1960; the scene is a Vietnam War reenactment somewhere in the southeastern United States.)
When you walk up to Janet Cardiff's wooden box, seen in this picture, you behold a diorama, an unsophisticated rendering of a small house in the woods. (You've seen better dioramas, which is part of the point.) If you put on the headphones, you hear familiar noises of the night woods, and then you start to hear faint voices as your attention is drawn to the house. You can't make out what's going on through the windows, but you sense that these are voices you would rather not be hearing. A drama unfolds, and in unnerving ways, you are implicated.