For a Raleigh icon, how about a huge globe?

The Daily Planet could come to symbolize the state capital’s science-nerd culture

April 15, 2012

If Raleigh needs an emblem, an icon, a symbol that shouts its identity like a billboard, the chief contender is the giant globe rolling into place on Jones Street – a 70-foot salute to our science-nerd nature.

In a city teeming with Ph.Ds, crawling with overachieving magnet school children, home to a dozen museums and five universities, what better logo than a 200-ton model of Earth with the Falkland Islands set at eye-level?

Raleigh has long sought a defining image, a picture for the postcards. Is it the capitol dome, mostly empty since 1963? Is it the acorn sculpture in Moore Square, where the homeless congregate?

Is it the shimmer wall on the side of the Convention Center, which most people see out the window of a moving car?

None of these seem to nail it.

But the minds behind the The Daily Planet – which spans 219 feet, 8 inches at its equator – hope their globe will be a trademark for a city with its eyes turned to the future, and inspire a generation of children who carry the Internet in their front pockets.

“I drive by that building and think it’s going to pique the interest of kids to want to go inside,” said Marvin Malecha, dean of the School of Design at N.C. State University. “That’s what I see in the planet. It’s basically saying, ‘We are about the world. Come study the world.’”

Technically, it’s the SECU Daily Planet – named for the state employee credit union foundation that paid for it with $4 million. Silver, blue and green, it’s the shiniest new toy at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, which will reopen Friday to show off a $56 million expansion.

The idea is to showcase North Carolina’s changing identity, from a state that sends workers into cotton mills to a place that competes worldwide for high-tech jobs.

The Daily Planet stands for global competition – a buzzword turned into metal and perched on Raleigh’s front door. Once a mid-sized Southern town with an acorn for a mascot, the city’s sights have expanded to globe-size.

On the street, the globe makes for a playful oddity, a multicolored marble dropped in a precinct of beige squares. John Morris, who sizes up buildings and scenery for, rates the globe and the sleek glass buildings of Green Square highly for shattering downtown monotony.

“The Daily Planet is like a cannon ball breaking down the walls of a boring landscape,” he writes.

A sensory experience

Building it required making pictures of the continents based on satellite photos, detailed down to the channels in the Outer Banks, then printing the images on Controltac graphic film – a process much like making wrap-around advertisements for buses.

There’s no glue involved. The globe’s stainless-steel panels were heated to 120 degrees, hot enough to roll South America permanently onto its skin. But the Daily Planet connects to the museum, so its not a perfect circle. Building a complete, free-standing circle would have required tunnels. So much of Asia and the South Pacific are excluded.

“My guess is the Chinese and the Australians in the Triangle are pretty ticked off,” said David Kroll, the museum’s director of science communications, jokingly.

On the inside, the globe becomes a walk-in theater, showing movies on a 42-foot curved screen, watchable from the ground and fromtwo balconies higher-up.

Much of the time, the globe will be showing 2.5 hours of film that shows scenes of ocean researchers at work, discusses how insects vastly outnumber mammals on the planet and explains how leaves fall from trees. Visiting scientists will speak from the floor, showing off video from their personal flash drives.

Watching from the second level, you feel as though you’re sitting on a tree limb. From the third level, the experience is almost vertigo-inducing – like seeing a movie from the top of a Ferris wheel.

“I really wonder if people will be hanging out up here,” said Kroll, standing roughly where Canada would be on the outside of the globe. “It’s a sensory experience.”

A passing fancy?

New things tend to get raved about because they’re new.

Half a block down Jones Street, the globe’s nearest neighbor must be sighing with bitter wisdom.

When the Legislative Building opened in 1963, Raleigh swooned. The News & Observer published a special Sunday section – just as it did for the museum – penning more than 40 stories about its new state house. Writers raved about its modish green pyramids. One article, headlined “Electronic Delights,” told how the microphones on legislators’ desks “would win the admiration of an astronaut.”

“The red carpet on the wide central stairway would be appropriate for the tread of Charles de Gaulle,” columnist Charles Craven gushed.

Half a century later, the reviews take a different tone. Nondescript is a term you’ll hear often, along with bare, cheap and The Brady Bunch.

Fifty years from now, what will they say about the globe? Even Malecha measures his praise.

Around the 1930s, icons such as Raleigh’s globe were de rigueur. The Chrysler Building, with its hood-ornament gargoyles, stood for American automotive might. The red Pegasus in Dallas stood for oil and boom times. With the globe, Malecha said, that style returns.

“Personally, as a design, I might think (it’s) a little bit kitsch,” he said. “Would I do that myself? Maybe not.”

But if you stand on Jones Street and watch the school buses unload, pouring out field-trip students from Nash and Pender counties, you know that thousands will sprint into the globe in the next few decades – one day in the childhood of tomorrow’s scientist.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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