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About Corncribs and the Unpainted Aristocracy: Contemporary Architecture in North Carolina
The current state of architecture in North Carolina can be discussed with reference to geological events that occurred 150 to 200 million years ago. feet. The Arch also raised the seafloor that was once connected to South America, and the waves created by this change created the Outer Banks, a series of barrier islands further offshore than any other part of the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, North Carolina has shallow rivers and only one major port at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Changes in river patterns caused by the ever-rising Cape Fear Arch remove topsoil, making North Carolina’s soils poorer than those in surrounding areas. With no rivers for transportation, inaccessible harbors, and poor soils, early settlements in North Carolina were humble. For most of its history, North Carolina was the land of small landowners, with its population scattered across vast landscapes.
Although it became the 10th largest state in the nation, the scattered settlement pattern continues to this day. And that diaspora has created a spirit of individualism, self-sufficiency, resourcefulness, and proud independence among the people of North Carolina. A long history of living apart can result in people who are considerate of their neighbors, self-righteous, and sometimes grumpy. I think all of these qualities can be found in North Carolina architecture today as well as in the past.
Today, the nearly 200-mile-long city crescent that straddles Cape Fear Arch along Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Raleigh is, as any proud Carolinian would say, Chardonnay on every table. Yes, it’s a farm like bananas in the city with NPR in every car. And enough digital progress to make Silicon Piedmont, if not Silicon Valley. Nearly eight miles wide, the strip runs parallel to old North Carolina, a quiet place tucked away in the countryside with thousands of small skeletal homes, gardens and barns. In these places you can see the architecture of a rustic life made by hard working people who are not content with luxuries rather than against wealth. I believe there is a singular beauty in the paintings of Speight, Maud Gatewood, Gregory Ivey, and the photographs of Bayard Wooten.
North Carolina’s flora and fauna diversity is another legacy of Cape Fear Arch. Six completely different ecological zones span the state, from the coastal subtropics to the highest Primitive Canadian climate east of the Mississippi. Today, our architecture is moving towards unity across this plant-climate tapestry, but that was not always the case. Early settlement patterns in North Carolina now remarkably tell the human story of ordinary buildings near land.
North Carolina’s first building was sustainable to its roots: built with local materials, embedded in the landscape, and aimed at the sun and breeze. They were made in the eastern part of our state by Native Americans, not by Europeans. I recorded them with pictures. For more than 300 years, this pattern of regional adaptation has persisted statewide.
For example, in mountainous areas, farmers built their homes on south-facing, wind-sheltered slopes adjacent to springs and streams. They planted kidney beans and morning glory to shade the porch in the summer. Their homes were built on stone piers to level the slopes and allow the hillside water to drain below. The crops and animals they raised varied from mountain valleys to river bottoms, depending on the ruggedness of the land and how the sun hit the mountain ridges. For the same reason, their barns differed from valley to valley.
Dotting the Piedmont hills of North Carolina are flue-cured tobacco barns built to dry what has been the state’s primary cash crop for over 200 years. They were 16 to 24 feet square, usually the same height, and sized to fit on tobacco leaf racks that were hung inside for drying in heat that could reach 180°F. Covered by low-pitched gable roofs, these humble barns are reminiscent of Greek temples. Those legions live in the landscape, but farmers modified each standard barn with a shed to suit their local microclimate, so no two are alike. In order to know what to do, the farmer had to know where the sun would rise and set, where the good wind would come from, and where the bad weather would come from and when. His children’s lives depended on his knowledge, so he designed his home as carefully. The philosopher Wendell Berry writes that in our attention to such places lies the hope of the world. Ordinary people who never knew they were architects designed and built these extraordinary barns and farmhouses all over North Carolina. Their builders are unknown, but they embody generational wisdom.
The rustic cottage at Nags Head on the Outer Banks was also built on an instinct for spending summers at the beach, not for farming. Nags Head Cottage dates back to his 1910 to his 1940 era, and for nearly 100 years was where the hurricanes from the Atlantic first hit. Though built with a wooden frame, their builders are strong enough to withstand hazards, yet light enough to welcome the sun and breezes, avoid flooding and offer sea views. The porches on the east and south sides ensured a dry porch in any weather, but there were no porches on the north side, where bad weather hit the coast. Cladding in juniper shingles, Nags Head Cottage was dubbed “Unpainted Aristocracy” by former News & Observer editor Jonathan Daniels. Today they seem to be as endemic to the place as the dunes.
Mountain houses, Piedmontese barns, and sea houses suggest the existence of a basic and direct building method that most non-architects and non-designer builders would discover if they let themselves. It is possible. This design ethic can be seen in corn coops, textile mills, peanut barns, and how early settlers dovetailed logs to build huts. These structures are to architecture what words are to poetry. We see this ethic in the way farmers store their corn. Because corn boxes are simpler and quieter than most of the things we build today, but they are just as effective because of their simplicity.
I think the same ethic exists in the minds of those who want buildings today because they appear in structures that are unencumbered by style, fashion, appearance commissions, or advertising. I feel the hands-on way of thinking in this state at the workshop.
In the years following World War II, as the state struggled to emerge as a progressive leader in the New South, excellent buildings were in great demand. Director of State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, Dr. JS Dorton, wanted to build a new livestock pavilion that would make the NC State Fair the most modern factory in the world. His architect was Matthew He Nowicki, a brilliant young Polish architect who arrived in North Carolina in 1948 to teach at the newly established design school at North Carolina State University.
A highly talented yet foreigner, Nowicki had a reserved and pragmatic attitude towards buildings and clients. All he needed was two huge pieces of concrete He flew the arches into the air and fixed them at an angle to the ground Steel between the arches Because he suggested creating one of the most efficient ones. Roof span ever made. It seemed strange, but Dorton’s practical efficiency of his arena makes as much sense for its tobacco-chewing country-boy clientele as it does for a tobacco barn or John his Deer’s tractor. When it was completed, News and Observers declared it to be “a magnificent architectural marvel that hurled the sky.” It remains the most famous North Carolina building outside of the state today.
The rise of Dorton Arena coincided with the rise of young architect George Matsumoto from his native California to North Carolina to practice architecture and teach in design schools. Matsumoto quickly established himself as one of the most gifted design talents of the post-war generation. Matsumoto’s early buildings were humble homes for small business owners and assistant professors. Landscape Working with his architect Gil and his Thurlow, Matsumoto placed buildings to enhance the landscape and blend elegantly with the site. Often he used deciduous trees to shade his buildings in the summer and to allow the sun to warm them in the winter. Typically, his homes were designed to capture the prevailing summer breezes and shield the occupants from the winter winds.
Matsumoto’s understanding of architectural techniques and crafts included wood, steel, stone, and brick. His Gregory Poole instrument building in Raleigh (1956) is a logical and solidly constructed structure contrasting the delicacy of the steel and glass enclosure with the giant D8 caterpillar displayed inside I was letting Although his building was modern, Matsumoto was welcomed because his designs were as direct as a corn cutting board. They were perceived as useful and practical.
In 1962, Harwell Hamilton Harris moved to Raleigh to practice and teach at the School of Design. Harris, like Matsumoto, was from California and was famous for his residential architecture. His finest building in North Carolina was the St. He Giles Presbyterian Church, which he built from 1967 to 1988. “Have you ever heard of someone having a revelation indoors?” he asked. The building has wide porches and deep canopies that encourage outdoor walking and contemplation. St. Giles is undeniably modern, bringing a touch of California to the pine hillsides of Carolina, but also keeping in tune with age-old Native traditions of building closer to the land.
All three 20th-century architects were foreigners, but you can discern a common thread that connects them to their clients. In 1952 Harris wrote: Build with His words echoed the cigar-smoking farmer who approved Dorton Arena, the small landowner who lived in a house designed by George Matsumoto, the deacon of St. I could describe the barn builders and the cottage residents.
Just because I mention old buildings in North Carolina doesn’t mean we should go back to building such dwellings. Rather, it shows how the accumulated wisdom of the past enables the construction of the present. As the British Arts and Crafts architect WR Lethaby said, “The art of one man’s depth has no value. I cannot and do not want to forget the knowledge of the historical origins of the , even if I could.”
In the future, our society will be judged by how we build it today. Perhaps the most important issue facing architecture today is sustainability. What is the best way to balance this particular place? Balanced architecture is the land on which it is built, the hills, the streams, the weather, the people, their connections, ideas, and bets on the future. Born from Today we have the opportunity to return North Carolina to its former balance with nature. The rocks we live in were once part of South America, the winds that cross our fields originate from the tropics, and most of the rain that hits us falls on us. From the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The forces that shape our buildings are much older than they are.
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