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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 a geologic event that occurred 150 to 200 million years ago: a major geologic uplift known as the Cape Fear Arch pushed present-day North Carolina up several hundreds. leg The ridge also raised the sea floor that once joined South America, and the waves created by this change created the Outer Banks, a chain of barrier islands farther apart than in any other part of the Atlantic. As a result, North Carolina has only one major port at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which is betrayed by shallow rivers and seashores. Changing river patterns caused by the ever-rising Cape Fear Arch remove topsoil, giving North Carolina poorer soils than surrounding regions. A lack of rivers for transportation, inaccessible harbors, and poor soil meant that early settlements in North Carolina were modest. For most of its history, North Carolina was a country of small landowners, its population scattered over a vast landscape.
Although we became the 10th largest state in the country, our pattern of scattered settlements continues to this day. And this dissolution created among North Carolinians an individual, self-sufficient, resourceful, and proud spirit of independence. If we have less wealth, we have less claim. A long history of living apart can also lead to a people wary of their neighbors, self-righteous and sometimes irritable. I believe that 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 along the Cape Fear Arch, from Charlotte to Raleigh, an urban banana farm, with, as any proud Carolinian will tell you, chardonnay on every table, NPR in every car, and if not Silicon Valley, enough digital progress to make a silicon Piedmont. Paralleling this nearly eight-mile-wide strip is old North Carolina, a quieter place where thousands of small frame houses, vegetable gardens, and barns rest in the countryside. In these places, it is possible to see simple residential architecture created by hardworking people who are not against wealth and are not satisfied with wealth. I believe there is a rare beauty here, captured in the paintings of Sarah Blakeslee, Frances Speight, Maud Gatewood and Gregory Ivy and the photographs of Bayard Wooten.
The diversity of plant and animal life in North Carolina is another legacy of the Cape Fear Arch. Six distinct ecological zones cover the state, from the subtropics of the coast to the Proto-Canadian climate of the highest mountains east of the Mississippi. Our architecture today tends toward uniformity in this tapestry of plants and climate, but it was not always so. To a degree that now seems remarkable, North Carolina’s early settlement pattern tells a human story of commonplace buildings near the land as diverse as the mountaintops and coastal plains on which they were located.
The first buildings in North Carolina were sustainable to their roots: built of local materials, placed in the landscape, oriented to the sun and wind. They were not made by Europeans, but by Native Americans in the eastern part of our country. In 1585, English explorer and artist John White documented them in paintings depicting native people relaxing in nature. For more than three hundred years, this pattern of local adaptation would continue throughout the state.
For example, in the mountains, farmers built their houses on south-facing slopes protected from the wind, near a spring or stream. They planted pole beans and morning glories to shade their porches in the summer. Their houses were built on stone stilts to level the slope and allow the slope water to flow underneath. The crops and animals they raised varied from mountain valley to river bottom, depending on how steep the land was and how the sun passed through the mountain range. Their warehouses varied from one valley to another for the same reasons.
Scattered across North Carolina’s Piedmont hills, tobacco barns have been built for more than two hundred years to dry the state’s dominant crop. Sixteen to twenty-four feet square and usually the same height, they were sized to fit racks of tobacco leaves hung inside to be dried in heat that could reach 180°F. These humble barns with low high roofs remind me of Greek temples. Legions of them fill the landscape, but none are the same because farmers have modified each standard barn with barns to suit their soil’s microclimate. A farmer had to know where the sun rose and set, where good winds came from, where bad weather came from, and when it came to know where to build a barn for his tobacco barn. Because the lives of his children depended on his knowledge, he designed his house with such care. Philosopher Wendell Berry wrote that the hope of the world lies in such attention to the earth. Ordinary people who didn’t know they were architects designed and built these unusual barns and farmhouses in North Carolina. Their builders are anonymous, but they embody the wisdom of successive generations.
An equally unusual group of rustic cottages at Nags Head on the Outer Banks was built with the instinct of the place – not for farming, but for summers on the beach. Nags Head cottages date from the 1910s to the 1940s and have been the first to be hit by hurricanes from the Atlantic for nearly a hundred years. Although timber-framed, the builders made them strong enough to resist danger but light enough to welcome the sun and breeze, raising each cottage on wooden stilts to prevent flooding and provide views of the ocean. The porches on the east and south sides guaranteed a dry porch in any weather, but there were no porches on the north side where bad weather hit the beach. Clad in weathered juniper shingles since their construction, Nags Head cottages have been called “unpainted aristocracy” by former News & Observer editor Jonathan Daniels. Today, they seem as native to their place as sand dunes.
Mountain houses, Piedmont barns, and ocean cottages represent a basic, straightforward construction path that most non-architect, non-designer craftsmen will explore. I can see this design ethic in corn cribs and textile mills, peanut barns and early settlers swinging logs to build a cabin. If these structures are words for architecture, they are also words for poetry. I see this ethic in the way a farmer stores his corn, because corn is simpler and quieter than most things we build today, but no less reliable for its simplicity.
I think the same ethos is in the minds of people who want buildings today, because it manifests itself in structures unencumbered by style, fashion, look commissions or advertising. On the countless DOT bridges, soybean elevators, and mechanic shops in North Carolina, I feel this state’s practical mindset.
The demand for a good building was high in North Carolina in the post-World War II years, when the state was struggling to emerge as the progressive leader of the New South. Dr. JSDorton, director of the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, wanted to build a new livestock pavilion that would make the “NC State Fair the most modern facility in the world.” Its architect was Matthew Nowicki, a brilliant young Polish architect who had come to North Carolina in 1948 to teach at the newly formed School of Design at North Carolina State College.
Prodigiously talented, but a foreigner, Nowicki had a modest and practical attitude toward the building and the customers. He needed it because he proposed throwing two huge concrete arches into the sky, anchoring them at an angle to the ground, and swinging a three-inch-thick roof on steel cables between the arches, creating one of the most efficient. roof coverings have been developed so far. Strange as it may seem, the Dorton Arena’s practical efficiency made as much sense to its tobacco-chewing country-boy clientele as a tobacco barn or a John Deere tractor. When it was finished, the News and Observer declared that it was “a great marvel of architecture, with the sky looking like a lasso”. Today, it remains North Carolina’s most famous building outside of the state.
As Dorton Arena rose, young architect George Matsumoto came to North Carolina from his native California to practice architecture and teach at the School of Design. Matsumoto soon established himself as one of the most talented design talents of the post-war generation. Matsumoto’s first buildings were modest homes for small business owners and docents. Working with landscape architect Gil Thurlow, Matsumoto positioned his buildings to enhance the landscape and blend elegantly with the site. He often used deciduous trees to shade buildings in the summer and let the sun warm them in the winter. As a rule, his houses were designed to catch the summer winds and protect the inhabitants from the winter wind.
Matsumoto’s understanding of construction techniques and craftsmanship encompassed wood, steel, stone, and brick. His Gregory Poole Equipment Building (1956) in Raleigh was a logical and well-built structure that contrasted the thinness of its steel and glass enclosure with the massive D8 caterpillars on display inside. Although his buildings were modern, Matsumoto was applauded because his designs were as direct as a corn crib: they were perceived as useful and practical.
In 1962, Harwell moved to Raleigh to intern and teach at the Hamilton Harris School of Design. Harris, like Matsumoto, was a native Californian known for his residential architecture. Undoubtedly, his finest building in North Carolina is the St. Giles Presbyterian Church. Harris convinced the church’s building committee to build a family of low, log buildings around the pine tree. “Have you ever heard of anyone having a revelation inside?” – he asked. The buildings have wide balconies and deep cornices that promote outdoor walks and contemplation. St. Giles is certainly modern, and it has brought a touch of California to the pine hills of the Carolinas, but it also follows an old, native tradition of building close to the soil.
Although all three 20th-century architects were not local, it is possible to distinguish a common aspect that binds them to their clients: a belief in a practical type of architecture without pretense and without wealth, so outspoken. . In 1952, Harris wrote: “The most important resources of a region are its free thoughts, its imagination, its share of the future, its energy, and above all its climate, topography, and special types of sticks and stones. build with.” His words could have described the cigar-smoking farmers who endorsed Dorton Arena, the small landowners who lived in houses designed by George Matsumoto, the deacons of St. Giles Presbyterian Church, and the generations of anonymous barn builders and cottagers who came before them.
My reference to the older buildings in North Carolina in no way means that we should go back to building such dwellings. Rather, it shows how the accumulated wisdom of our past can enable us to shape our present. As British Arts and Crafts architect WR Lethabi said, “No art is worth one man’s depth—it must be a thousand men’s depth. We cannot forget the knowledge of our historical origins, and we would not want to forget it, even if we could.”
In the future, our society will be judged by how we build it today. Without a doubt, the most important issue facing architecture today is sustainability. What is the best way to balance this special place? A balanced architecture rises from the land, hills, valleys, air and people on which it is built, their connections, ideas and future share. Today, we have an opportunity to restore North Carolina to its former balance with nature. And in doing so, we must remember that we are not a separate land: the rock we live on was once part of South America, the wind that blows through our fields originates in the tropics, and the rain that washes us mostly falls. From the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The forces that shape our buildings are much older than construction itself.
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