As you approach the North Carolina Museum of Art from Blue Ridge Road in search of its new building, you may find yourself wondering where it is. When you realize that the grouping of what appear to be metal sheds is the museum, you may thinkwhoa, we just spent $72.3 million on that? Hurry up and park, because you are about to be enlightened. The West Building, as the NCMA’s new structure is being called, will open to the public April 24–25, and even the extensive celebrations planned seem inadequate to the glory of the achievement.

Designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners to house the state’s permanent art collection, the West Building is itself a subtle, even sly work of art. Inside and out, it is a paean to the light, and the crystallization of change in museum philosophy over the past 30 years. Stand in the new courtyard between the West and East buildings and sum it up for yourself: To the east crouches Edward Durell Stone’s dark art fortress with its lowering brow and prison-slat windows; to the west floats Thomas Phifer’s luminous pavilion, luxurious with glass, opening itself to courtyard, landscape and people.

Inside, the contrast is even greater. In the Stone building, visitors wander from dead end to cul-de-sac in the confusing, low-ceilinged galleries, most of which are without any natural light. (Stone also designed the baffling N.C. Legislature building.) With egress available through a single door, one sees the same art on the way out as on the way in. In the Phifer building, there are no stops, no barriers to visitor flow or whimsy. In a radical reversal of the customary control practiced by museums, you can enter and leave the new pavilion from any of four doors, although at least once you should enter the “main” door through the ritual transition space of the glass portico.

With the completion of this remarkable building that connects so hospitably and directly with the landscape, the decision 30 years ago to site the museum on a suburban tract far from downtown at last makes sense. It may even seem prescient, but it is doubtful that those responsible envisioned any aspect of the museum park while jockeying for control of a chunk of state-owned land with plenty of room for parking. Getting the Stone design built and opened in 1983 on that land was an important accomplishment. Until that time, the state’s art, including the very great pictures of the Kress collection, had been badly housed in a disused state office building. Also, Stone’s design reflected the thinking of a rapidly professionalizing museum world that often valued the care of art over the ability of visitors to see it. It was a proud moment for the state on the blustery April day it opened, a solid brick edifice surrounded by a sea of raw red clay and bumpy pastureland. We had a real museum at last. But there was no disguising even in that celebratory moment that the building was a little pompous and distrustful of the people to whom it belonged.

That same year, a very different art museum opened in another Southern city, setting the art publications all aflutter. Richard Meier had designed a gleaming new building for Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and it let the light in. The experience of stepping into the bright white atrium, paintings aglow all around, was exhilarating after a lifetime of visiting dim galleries. New technologies and products now allowed destructive UV rays to be adequately filtered so fragile artworks would not be damaged, and a new way of thinking began to take hold among museum designers. In 1984, Meier won the contract to design the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The museum there would again feature the most advanced natural lighting technology of the timeand among Meier’s staff for much of the arduous process (the Getty opened in late 1997) was the young architect Thomas Phifer.

In 1996, Phifer founded his own firm, Thomas Phifer and Partners, in New York. At about the same time, NCMA’s director Larry Wheeler and chief designer Dan Gottlieb (now the museum’s director of planning and design) began thinking about expanding the museum, the 1983 building being, in Wheeler’s words, “inadequate to the collection, the audience, the new North Carolina.” They were especially concerned with how the museum building or buildings should fit into the much larger scheme they were incubating with the creation of the Museum Park amphitheater (opened in 1997, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1947 state legislative mandate and funding to start an art museum) and the development of the extensive grounds as an art park. Their search for an architect, said Wheeler, led them to Phifer, whose “brilliant new thinking about buildings for art” coincided with theirperhaps especially Gottlieb’sown.

The museum had a nice piece of land, but it also had a big problem next door: The Polk Youth Center, a juvenile prison that cast a pall over the vicinity. Polk was slated to be closed and replaced, and Wheeler believed its land should attach to the art museum grounds. First, he had to outmaneuver the allies of the recently deceased Terry Sanford, who wanted to build a performing arts center there to be named in honor of the widely admired progressive former governor, U.S. senator and president of Duke University. (That project ultimately morphed into the Durham Performing Arts Center.) But Wheeler, who has tremendous political savvy, was determined to get that high ground for the museum, and dogged enough to do it. The Department of Cultural Resources took control of the site in 2000 for use by the museum, which oversaw the dismantling of the prison, collecting materials that would later be re-used in the museum park. As Phifer has said, “Larry Wheeler is the reason this building is sitting here.”

At the time Phifer and his architectural models were introduced to the public in 2002, the whole project seemed slightly silly. The NCMA’s collection had not quite made the leap from being a hodgepodge that happened to include great artworks to being a diverse collection surveying world art with real strengths in several areas. The insouciant 1997 PICTURE THIS amphitheater, designed by Barbara Kruger et al., fit uneasily between the Stone building and the barely touched grounds beyond, where Thomas Sayre’s circling 1999 “Gyre” rose lonely on the ridge. But it was impossible not to be impressed by the gospel of connectivity to the natural world preached with such clarity and passion by Gottlieb and Phifer, and in retrospect it is necessary to declare both the museum staff and the architect visionary.

Wheeler may be the reason the West Building exists and Phifer the reason it is so unexpected and so beautiful, but the museum’s curatorial and design staffs must be the reason it works so well for the art. The NCMA is blessed with an unusually stable curatorial staff, led by John W. Coffey, deputy director for art and curator of American and modern art, and chief curator Linda Johnson Dougherty, both of whom are passionate connoisseurs who have done extraordinary work building the museum’s collection. The design staff has a similar depth of experience, and their familiarity with the collection and its particular needs supplemented the architect’s general knowledge about showing art to its best advantage. In his media preview comments, Phifer called Gottlieb “my partner this last 10 years” and praised the curators for “bringing the collections together into one collection.”

“A truly great museum changes the way you see, as opposed to just inviting you to look,” Linda Carlisle, secretary of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, said to the media representatives panting to get such a glimpse. Whether you have known the collection long and loved it well or never seen it before, you will be changed by the experience of seeing the art under the ebb and flow of light in this spacious building. The galleriesnone of which has four cornersare lit by 360 highly engineered skylight oculi set in barrel vaults and by glass curtain walls, as well as supplementary full-spectrum artificial light.

The walls are whiteall the color comes from the art, and it pops like you’ve never seen it before. There is no more ugly carpet over concrete flooring; instead, pale oak forms the top surface of an elaborate five-layer sprung floor system designed to reduce “museum fatigue,” and that makes the rooms acoustically pleasant, eliminating the echoes and aural clutter so common in museums. (It remains to be discovered whether this is true while the museum café is in operation.)

Phifer’s design aligns the building with the geo-realities of direction and season, and depends on strict repetitive geometry, careful proportion and first-rate materials. Thoughtful intersections of the rectangular basic forms result in tremendously long sightlines in some places and unexpected turns and surprises elsewhere. The curators have taken full advantage of both the light and the space to make you see individual artworks, and relationships among them, anew. You can look through time, as it were, from Van Dyke to Copley, or from Giotto’s altarpiece (the only complete example outside Europe and part of the priceless 1960 Kress bequest) to Devorah Sperber’s After Mona Lisa 2, made in 2005 from 5,184 spools of thread. At last, the huge Frank Stella and Alex Katz paintings look right, filling two opposite wallsand between them sizzles a shaped blue Ellsworth Kelly painting. When you turn from it, it leaves an orange afterimage on your eye, to be echoed by the orange in the both the large pictures.

Another brilliant placement put Josef Albers’ color squares next to Carl Frieseke’s American Impressionist scene, enlivening both immeasurably. In another gallery, a tremendous, newly acquired woven metal wall piece by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui mediates between the garish Gerhard Richter and the gray angst of the enormous Anselm Keifer. The German Expressionist pictures have never looked so good, nor has the blue marble Archipenko dancer in her angled pose near the bold Picasso. One of the biggest surprises is the gallery of Jewish ceremonial art, which had previously been a small, rich jewel box and is now far more joyous and expansive.

Sculpture now stars at NCMA, from the ancient to the just-finished, and it plays a major role in pointing out the expansiveness of Phifer’s design. The Rodin gallery (a little overfullwhat a problem to have, too many Rodins) extends right through the glass curtain wall (and door) and continues in an exquisite courtyard. The work of Durham landscape architects Lappas + Havener, it is a felicitous arrangement of stone, water, bamboo and light, and like the building, it is both extremely formal in conception and utterly free in spirit, melding with the rougher landscape around it with a simple grace.

Once outside, take stock of the building not as a museum but as architecture. Where are those plain metal sheds now? Phifer has jettisoned the bombast that makes Meier’s museums a little oppressive in their architectural magniloquence, but those forms that appeared so humble from the road are anything but. The smooth planes of glass and courtyard are framed by multilayered metal trim. Those silvery anodized aluminum panels that hang over the non-glass exterior wallsthey are neither truly vertical nor do they follow a flat plane, giving an undulant quality to their reflectivity. Images move over them like meadow grass waving. Look up: the panels form a rippled upper edge, with the barrel vaults rising above like an even mountain range. Stand at the corner, look along the cladding: Bright strips of mirror catch and multiply fragments of art and landscape and viewer into limitless patterns. Look outward into the reflection: Beyond this highly cultured new temple lie 164 acres of art in the wild. It’s the largest museum park in the country, now woven with trails that connect to the city, its rolling hills punctuated with many fine sculptures and design elements. From Chris Drury’s “Cloud Chamber for Trees and Sky” to the Rodin Court, the park is ours to roam at any time. With the West Building catalyzing the park into a true art campus, it appears that we really are living in the state of the arts.