Mint, architecturally, mostly passes the test

Before the new Mint Museum Uptown opened last fall, I toured the building with a gaggle of media types. It took me a few minutes to realize the soft-spoken silver-haired man walking next to me was Rodolfo Machado, the design architect.

He looked forward, he told me, to the time when people filled the structure and it came alive. That moment when people poured in for the October 2010 opening has come and gone and the Mint as a piece of architecture for the most part has passed the test.

Machado and Silvetti Associates of Boston, a firm experienced with museum design, along with Clark Patterson Lee of Charlotte, created a building with exterior presence, interior clarity, and, in places, some pizazz.

The Mint is something new for Charlotte - a vertical museum. Located on South Tryon, it rises a full five stories. The first encounter with a gallery full of art doesn't happen until the third level.

Moreover, the 145,000-square-foot, $60 million building is part of the Levine Center for the Arts, which includes three other arts groups housed in contemporary buildings and a 48-story office tower.

"So many things were given, so many things already in place," said Machado. "It's something one doesn't usually encounter."

A modern interpretation

With seating and trees in front, the Mint contributes to a welcome change on South Tryon, making a formerly shabby and run-down strip bright and clean, and offering public space to sit, eat lunch or relax.

A big building almost a block deep, it's monumental but friendly. An open terrace and cutouts at the top make the building lighter as does its facade, split into two asymmetrical jutting wings separated by a glass slot.

Machado said he and his colleagues had in mind a modern interpretation of a Baroque church on a square. You can read the two wings as abstracted church towers of different heights and shapes.

Although contemporary, without the pasted on columns and pediments found in many Charlotte buildings, a certain classicism underlies the Mint, a sense of balance and proportion.

A grand floor

You enter up a cascade of steps, a welcoming civic gesture tying the building and the street. Also available are a glass elevator and stairs to the right that could be better marked.

This second floor is a piano nobile, a kind of grand floor. In a Renaissance palazzo, it would be above street level. Here it is above the spacious and light-filled museum store. Mint officials would have preferred space for art on the ground floor, but the plans of the former Wachovia bank, which built the complex under contract with the city, did not allow sufficient square footage.

On this grand floor are the coat room, front desk, elevator core and restrooms, escalators, classrooms, auditorium and a children's hands-on gallery. There's also a huge atrium 65 feet high.

This space opens the building, bringing inside needed light. Its main function is circulation: moving people. The galleries of the Mint Museum of Craft + Design (third floor) and the Mint Museum of Art (fourth floor) flow off the atrium, making them easily accessible.

But while the atrium is big, it is not grand. It has nothing to scale it, to relate it to a human dimension. It needs more and different kinds of art.

The approach to the atrium also detracts from its impact. The designers seem to have tried Frank Lloyd Wright's gambit, entering a low space that suddenly explodes in height. However, there's no sense of procession, of arrival.

What does help the space are the escalators opposite the huge window. White, with class and metal trim, they look sculptural.

A deficiency

Escalators or elevators take you to the third floor and the first full taste of art. On both the studio crafts and fine arts levels, the spacious permanent galleries (12,000 square feet) are to the west, the galleries for changing exhibits (6,000 square feet) to the east.

Wall colors and lighting modulate to suit and show off art as different as 19th-century paintings and 21st-century craft furniture.

This new building also allows the use of visual aids such as flat screens, several playing video. The galleries also have adjacent study areas with computers, books and seating.

Carpet covers the floors in the permanent galleries, wood in the changing galleries. The architects used wood extensively, mostly stained white cypress, to make the building feel warm.

From the outside you can see it on the terrace ceiling, inside on the atrium ceiling. The wooden stairs rising from the street are beautifully constructed.

One glaring deficiency mars the otherwise good use of materials. The exterior cladding is precast concrete panels that have been treated to have the mottled look of stone. It doesn't work.

On the north side of the building, polished granite is on the facades of some commercial spaces. Stone also covers the Church Street façade, surrounding what was to be the entrance to the condo tower, postponed because of the recession.

These touches make the precast look worse.

Using precast was a budget decision. As it is, Mint officials were able to finish the building properly only with a $5 million gift from the Robert Haywood Morrison Foundation (the atrium is named for him), added to $54 million from the city.

It's a shame, but the structure does what a museum should do - put the viewer in touch with art. It's the first building in the Mint's 75 years built as a museum and the city is better for it.