Now that the state Supreme Court has declined a petition to appeal the highly publicized, very expensive case of the Cherry/Gordon house in Oakwood, it’s time to take a good, hard look at the root source of that controversy: Modern architecture.
Modernism is more than a style. It’s a disciplined, responsive approach to design. And it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s played a valued, prominent role in the evolution of our built environment here.
As I’ve noted in earlier columns, it’s the primary legacy of Dean Henry Kamphoefner’s School of Design at N.C. State University, beginning in the late 1940s. When it seemed on the verge of extinction in the1980s, architects like Frank Harmon picked up the modernist threads left behind by the likes of Harwell Hamilton Harris – and stitched together a new, site-sensitive, transparent tapestry for this community.
These architects taught as they practiced, spreading the modernist gospel to new generations of North Carolina designers. Young practitioners at Tonic, Oxide and Raleigh Architecture Company today trace their lineage through Harmon and Harris, all the way back to the seminal works of Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra in 1930s California.
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Perhaps nowhere in the Triangle is this modern legacy more vividly palpable today than inside a little storefront shop on Raleigh’s Person Street at the edge of Oakwood, home to a 6-year-old firm called in situ studio. It’s a tiny architecture practice (it recently made its fifth hire), but it’s a prolific one, dedicated to a pure interpretation of modern design.
“We finish about 20 to 25 projects a year,” says Matt Griffith, principal in the firm. “So we’ve done more than 100 so far.”
That means churches, restaurants, residences and multi-family condominiums, all executed in a clean and crisp palette. Their version of modernism is driven mostly by function and client needs. “It’s a direct response to context,” says Erin Sterling Lewis, also a principal. “The architect is there to capture the idea of client, space and site.”
Both Lewis and Griffith worked side-by-side in Harmon’s office for four years, soaking up his design philosophy and working on projects like the AIA North Carolina Center for Architecture and Design on Peace Street. Lewis cites a reverence for Pritzker Prize-winning Swiss architect Peter Zumthor (“He has an ability to reduce a problem to the only solution it needs to be,” she says), while Griffith was influenced by Arkansas’s Marlon Blackwell – recently named first in Architect magazine’s Top 50 design category – for whom he also worked for four years.
Theirs is no cookie-cutter approach to architecture. None of the firm’s projects looks like any other, because each is driven by a one-of-a-kind set of design challenges. What they do have in common, though, is a thriftiness of line and form – a lean and spare kind of beauty that’s derived from a minimalist point of view and an appreciation for natural light.
Let’s take a look at four of in situ studio’s recent projects, and the impact of a new generation of modernists in the Triangle today:
The Corbett Residence, Durham County: Tucked away into seven wooded acres alongside a creek bed, this 1,500-square-foot home takes maximum advantage of its views, with floor-to-ceiling, double-paned glass in its shared living area. Even the baths benefit from light wells above. Perched on concrete blocks, it’s clad in dark-stained white cypress to soak up the winter sun. “It adheres to modernist principals that a lot of architects seem to forget today,” says owner James Corbett. “There’s a simple palette of materials and it lets nature enter and do the heavy lifting, bringing the outside in, in a natural and uncluttered way.”
The Medlin Residence, Raleigh: At 3,700 square feet, this one’s inserted into a near-vertical slope at the rear of a one-third-acre lot in Sunset Hills, sited there because a creek in front creates a flood plain. It’s laid out in the shape of an L to create a courtyard at its rear. Public spaces on the ground floor – kitchen, dining and living rooms – are connected to a second-floor den and bedrooms via stairway silhouetted behind frosted glass, the star of the show. Other materials are stained white cedar, stucco, Galvalume, and Hardie panels. Corey Mason’s restrained landscape lends a pristine artist’s touch to grounds and courtyard.
The Ten at South Person, Raleigh: Down the street from in situ’s office lies a two-story condominium project that offers proof of the value of good design: Its 10 units sold out within six days of entering the market in 2015. As design architects, in situ flooded them with natural light – if not on three sides, then from skylights above. The condos mimic 19th-century row houses, with red brick stoops, warm gray lap siding, stained Atlantic cedar and bright birch doors. The architects and client agreed to eliminate a center section, creating four end units instead of two.
The Church on Morgan, Raleigh: At the southwest corner of Morgan and Blount streets in downtown Raleigh, in situ linked up four disparate buildings of various shapes and sizes, uniting them in a Bauhaus-like, satellite version of Edenton Street Methodist Church. They added distinct entries for different programs, created a circulation loop between sanctuary, classrooms and restrooms, and bathed the interior in natural light. Known as a church that tries to be more about its neighborhood than itself, it now features a corner garden used for overflow from fellowship programs – and community events like the Hopscotch Music Festival.
All these projects were completed within the past 18 months, keeping the staff at in situ studio tired, if happy. “We’re having a blast. We’re working hard, and sometimes we’re stressed out,” Griffith says. “But it’s a very active, stimulating life to be living.”
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Lewis says. “I laugh more at in situ studio than anywhere else in my life.”
Still, this is a firm that takes its modern architecture very seriously – as we all should – understanding that it’s an important and lasting part of who we are in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the recent Cherry/Gordon dust-up is that all of us should appreciate modernism’s value here – and strive mightily to prevent its demolition.
In fact, we should be celebrating and promoting it like the insightful architects at in situ studio who are walking, talking advocates of its grace and virtue – and who lead us all by informed example.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.