by Ken Otterbourg
photographs by Joseph Rafferty
The last time architectural critic Paul Goldberger examined Raleigh’s design sensibilities was in 2014, when, writing in Vanity Fair, he politely but firmly skewered the city’s Board of Adjustment for revoking the building permit of a modern house already under construction in the Oakwood neighborhood.
Goldberger returned in November, this time as the keynote speaker at a symposium entitled Build Raleigh Better, sponsored by the College of Design at N.C. State and the Contemporary Art Museum, and held at CAM. The subtle premise of the day-long event was that the city’s architecture, the fruit of the flock of construction cranes, doesn’t quite jibe with Raleigh’s presence on all those lists of “best this” and “best that.”
Robin Abrams, the head of the university’s School of Architecture, said the event came together after a group of Raleigh’s movers and shakers started griping about what was being built in the city, the cookie-cutter condos and apartment complexes and soulless office towers. “They felt,” Abrams said, “there was a disconnect between the aspirations of the city and the reality of the built environment, and this symposium is hopefully the first step toward bridging that gap.”
Goldberger’s message was one of constructive criticism tempered with optimism. He praised the design of the West Building of the N.C. Museum of Art, completed in 2010, and the new Hunt Library at N.C. State, completed in 2013, but noted that both buildings were removed from downtown and from the commercial pressures of private development. “What is ultimately going to make a difference in Raleigh,” he said, “are one or two commercial developers who decide to push a little bit farther and do something a little bit better than the run-of-the-mill.”
But he cautioned against relying on architecture to define the city and urged planners and others to pay attention to the bigger picture. “You need great streets. You don’t need great buildings; they are the exclamation points. But you can’t only talk in exclamation points. You need lots of ordinary letters and words.”
Other presenters at the symposium included Curt Fentress, who grew up outside Greensboro, attended N.C. State, and has designed many of the signature buildings in Denver, including its iconic airport. He said that good design comes from pushing – slowly and consistently – for work that is always just a little better.
Although the conference was organized to discuss Raleigh’s design, the conversations quickly became regional, underscoring the Triangle’s fluid real estate market, with big development projects taking place in Raleigh, Durham, the Research Triangle Park, and everywhere in between. Each area has slightly different real
estate assets, and those differences will drive the look and feel of development and design.
There are several big development projects in the works for downtown Raleigh. The Dillon Supply Co. property, across from CAM, is being redeveloped as commercial and residential towers. A deal was signed in November to sell the News & Observer property on Martin and Salisbury streets for $20.2 million, demolish most of the buildings, and redevelop the land as apartments and a hotel. And to the east is the plan to redesign Moore Square, a project that has had its fair share of controversy, conflict in part tied to a desire to do something exceptional in this public space.
At the end of the day, Goldberger seemed to channel the mood of the audience when he said, “I see two very contradictory things here that have come together beautifully. A passionate commitment to Raleigh and belief in the city and what it can be and should be, and at the same time a real honesty and acknowledging that it isn’t that yet.”