All Of These Flower Structures Are Modified Leaves Except About Corncribs and the Unpainted Aristocracy: Contemporary Architecture in North Carolina

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About Corncribs and the Unpainted Aristocracy: Contemporary Architecture in North Carolina

It is possible to discuss the current state of architecture in North Carolina by referring to a geologic event that occurred 150 to 200 million years ago: a great geologic uplift, known as the Cape Fear Arch, pushed up what is now North Carolina by several hundred. The foot arch also raised the sea floor, which was once connected to South America, and the waves created by this shift created the Outer Banks, a chain of islands farther apart than any other part of the Atlantic seaboard. As a result, North Carolina has shallow rivers and only one large harbor at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which is made treacherous by offshore shoals. The Cape Fear Arch is changing the river’s shape, which is constantly rising, removing topsoil, giving North Carolina poorer soil than surrounding regions. The lack of rivers for transportation, inaccessible harbors, and poor soil meant that early settlement in North Carolina was modest. For much of its history, North Carolina was a land of small landowners, its population scattered across a vast landscape.

Although we have become the 10th largest state in the country, our scattered settlement pattern persists even today. And that dispersion has created in North Carolinians a spirit of independence that is individualistic, self-reliant, resourceful, and proud. If we have less wealth, we have less pretension. A long history of alienation can also produce people who are wary of their neighbors, self-righteous, and sometimes sad. I believe all of these qualities can be found in North Carolina architecture, not only in the past, but also in the present.

Today an urban crescent stretches nearly 200 miles along Interstate 85 from the Cape Fear Arch, from Charlotte to Raleigh, like an urban banana farm where, as every proud Carolinian will tell you, there’s Chardonnay on every table, NPR in every car, and if not Silicon Valley, then Silicon. Enough digital progress to make Piedmont. Parallel to this strip, which is about eight miles wide, is old North Carolina, a quiet place where thousands of small frame houses, vegetable gardens and barns dot the countryside. The architecture of simple living here is built by hardworking people who are not opposed to wealth, but are not happy with opulence either. Here, I believe, is a rare beauty captured in paintings by Sarah Blakeslee, Frances Speight, Maud Gatewood and Gregory Ivey, and photographs by Byrd Wootton.

Another legacy of the Cape Fear Arc is the diversity of plant and animal life in North Carolina. Six distinctly different ecological zones span the state, from the coastal subtropics to the proto-Canadian climate of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. Today our architecture tends to resemble this tapestry of vegetation and climate, but this was not always the case. To a degree now remarkable, North Carolina’s early settlement pattern tells a human story of simple buildings close to the ground, as varied as the mountaintops and coastal plains on which they stood.

North Carolina’s first buildings stayed true to their roots: built with local materials, embedded in the landscape, oriented toward the sun and wind. They were made by Native Americans, not Europeans, in the eastern part of our state. In 1585 the English explorer and artist John White documented them in drawings that depicted native people resting in nature. For more than three hundred years this pattern of local adaptation would persist throughout the kingdom.

For example, in the mountains, farmers built their houses on wind-sheltered slopes facing south, next to springs or creeks. They planted pole beans and morning glories to shade their sheds in the summer. Their houses were built on stone piers to level the slopes and drain the mountain water. The crops and animals they raised varied from mountain valleys to river bottoms, depending on how high the land was and how the sun hit the mountain ridge. Their barns varied from one valley to another for the same reason.

Scattered across North Carolina’s Piedmont hills are flue-cured tobacco barns, built to dry what was the state’s major cash crop for more than two hundred years. Sixteen to twenty-four feet square and usually of the same height, they were sized to accommodate racks of tobacco leaves that were hung inside to dry in heat up to 180°F. Covered by low gable roofs, these humble barns remind me of Greek temples. Legions of them fill the landscape, yet no two are alike as farmers modified each standard barn with a shed to suit the micro-climate of their land. To know where to build a shed on his tobacco barn, the farmer needed to know where the sun rose and set, where good winds came from, where bad weather came from, and when it came. He designed his house very carefully because the lives of his children depended on his knowledge. Philosopher Wendell Berry has written that in such attention lies the hope of the world. Ordinary people had no idea they were the architects who designed and built these extraordinary barns and farmhouses in North Carolina. Their builders are anonymous, yet they embody the wisdom of successive generations.

An equally quaint group of rustic cottages at Nags Head on the Outer Banks was built on an instinct for space — not for farming but for summers on the beach. Nags Head Cottages date from the 1910s-1940s and were the first to withstand hurricanes from the Atlantic for almost a hundred years. Although made of wood, their builders made them sturdy enough to withstand danger, yet light enough to welcome sun and wind, each cottage raised on wooden stilts to prevent flooding and offer ocean views. Their eastern and southern porches guarantee a dry porch in any weather, but not the northern porch where bad weather hits the coast. Clad in juniper shingles from the time Nags Head Cottage was built, former News & Observer editor Jonathan Daniels called it “unpainted aristocracy”. Today they seem as rooted in their place as sand dunes.

Mountain houses, Piedmont barns, and ocean cottages suggest that there is a basic, direct way to build that, left to themselves, most non-architect, non-designer builders would discover. I see this design ethic in corn cribs and textile mills, in peanut barns, and in the way early settlers prepared logs to build cabins. These structures are meant to convey what the words are to the poem. I see this ethic as a farmer storing his corn because the corncrib is simpler and quieter than most of the things we make today but is no less valid because of its simplicity.

I think that this is the ethos that people who want buildings today have in mind, because it is reflected in structures that are not burdened by style, fashion, appearance commissions or advertising. In North Carolina’s numerous DOT pools, soybean elevators and mechanics’ workshops, I sense the practical mindset of this state.

Better buildings were in demand in North Carolina in the years after World War II, when the state was struggling to emerge as a progressive leader of the new South. Director of the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. J.S. Dorton wanted to build a new livestock pavilion that would make the “NC State Fair the most modern plant in the world.” Their architect was Matthew Nowicki, a brilliant young Polish architect who came to North Carolina in 1948 to teach at the newly established School of Design at North Carolina State College.

Prodigiously talented yet foreign, Nowicki had a humble and practical approach to buildings and clients. He needed it, because he proposed building two immense concrete arches into the sky, anchoring them at an angle to the earth, and swinging a three-inch-thick canopy on steel cables between the arches, which was most efficient. Roof spans ever constructed. Odd in appearance, Dorton Arena’s practical functionality made its customers think of chewing tobacco, tobacco barns or John Deere tractors. When it was completed, the News and Observer declared it to be “a magnificent architectural wonder that revels in the sky.” It is today the most famous North Carolina building outside the state.

As Dorton Arena was growing, young architect George Matsumoto moved from his native California to North Carolina to practice architecture and teach at a design school. Matsumoto quickly established himself as one of the most gifted design talents of the post-war generation. Matsumoto’s early buildings were modest homes for small business owners and assistant professors. Working with landscape architect Gil Thurlow, Matsumoto gracefully merged his buildings with the site to enhance the landscape. He often used deciduous trees to shade buildings in the summer and provide sunlight in the winter. Typically its houses were oriented to catch the prevailing summer winds and shelter their occupants from the winter winds.

Matsumoto’s understanding of construction techniques and craftsmanship included wood, steel, stone and brick. His Gregory Poole Equipment Building in Raleigh (1956) was a logical and elegant construction that contrasted the fragility of its steel and glass enclosure with the massive D8 caterpillar displayed inside. Although his buildings were modern, Matsumoto was welcomed because his designs had the simplicity of a corn crib: they were perceived as useful and practical.

In 1962, Harwell moved to Raleigh to practice and teach at the Hamilton Harris School of Design. Harris, like Matsumoto, was a native Californian, noted for his residential architecture. His finest building in North Carolina was St. Giles Presbyterian Church, built between 1967 and 1988. Harris persuaded the Church Building Committee to build low-slung, log-pile buildings around the pine grove. “Have you ever heard of anyone having an epiphany at home?” he asked. The buildings have wide porches and deep eaves that encourage outdoor rambles and contemplation. St. Giles is undeniably modern, and brings a California flare to a piney Carolina hill, but it also follows the old, original tradition of building close to the land.

Although all three architects are not native to the 20th century, it is possible to identify a common thread that binds them to their clients: a belief in a practical type of architecture, without pretense or opulence, that was as clearly spoken as confidence. . Harris wrote in 1952, “The most important resources of a region are its free minds, its imagination, its future share, its energy, and, last but not least, its climate, its topography, and its particular types of sticks and stones. Build with it.” His words could describe the cigar-smoking farmers who endorsed Dorton Arena, George Matsumoto, the deacons of St. Giles Presbyterian Church, and generations of anonymous barn-builders and cottage dwellers before them.

My reference to old buildings in North Carolina does not mean that we should go back to building such houses. Rather it explains how the accumulated wisdom of our past can enable us to prepare for the present. As the English Arts and Crafts architect WR Lethaby said, “Any art that is one man deep is not worth much — it must be a thousand men deep. We cannot forget the knowledge of our historical origins, and we do not want to forget it, even if we could.” though.”

The future will be determined by how we shape our society today. One of the most important issues facing architecture today is sustainability. What is the best way to create balance in this particular place? A balanced architecture emerges from the land on which it is built, its hills, streams, climate and its people, their connections, ideas and stakes in the future. Today we have an opportunity to return North Carolina to nature’s former balance. And while we do that, we must remember that we are not an isolated land: the rock we live on was once part of South America, the wind that blows over our fields comes from the tropics, and the rain that falls on us comes in large quantities. From the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The forces that shape our buildings are much older than the building itself.

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