We’re just a month into 2018, but there were a number of significant events at the end of 2017’s architectural timeline.
A few are still relevant and shouldn’t be allowed to pass without comment.
Remembering a local legend
Friends and fans of modern architecture gathered on Feb. 3 at the North Carolina Center for Architecture and Design to celebrate the life of one of Raleigh’s most enduring architects.
Brian Shawcroft, educated at M.I.T. and Harvard, knew the history of Raleigh’s modernist aesthetic like the back of his hand, and stood willing to debate its merits at the drop of a hat. He died on Dec. 18 at the age of 88.
I first met him in 2008 when I was researching an article on an addition he’d made to Raleigh’s elegant little Fadum House, originally designed by James Fitzgibbon in 1949. Fitzgibbon, a former partner with Buckminster Fuller in Raleigh and a professor at N.C. State’s School of Design, died in 1985.
When it came time in 2006 to create more space for that house, Brian paid close attention to the original – and honored it with what may be the most sensitive addition ever built in the Triangle. He did that out of respect for his former friend and colleague – and for his clients, who also updated Fitzgibbon’s design. When I arrived at the house in 2008, Brian was in the kitchen, eager to discuss the old and new.
For me, it was the beginning of a long and fact-filled architectural education. His recollections of the School of Design, Dean Henry Kamphoefner and the faculty there were illuminating – and laced with no small amount of drama.
Brian’s introduction to Raleigh in 1960 was legendary. Picked up at the airport by Kamphoefner in a bright red, 1953 Raymond Loewy-designed Studebaker (stripped of all ornament, including chrome bumpers), he and his wife arrived at the dean’s home. They were shown two guest bedrooms with single beds, each significant for the architectural legends who had slept there: “Frank Lloyd Wright slept in this bed, and Mies (Van der Rohe) slept in that one,” Kamphoefner said. “You have to choose.” Brian selected Wright – leaving Mies to his wife.
Over long lunches and many years, I listened raptly to his tales, critiques and recollections.
For a time he worked in Harwell Hamilton Harris’ Raleigh office, trading his hand drawings for rent. Harris had absorbed architecture in the California office of modernist genius Rudolph Schindler. As a professor at N.C. State, Harris passed that knowledge on to generations of students and professors alike. Brian spoke of him in hushed, reverent tones.
There were must-see tours of modern buildings, including Milton Small’s own Mies-inspired office. “Go on up there,” he urged me, reluctant to climb the stairs himself. And then the elementary school Brian had designed in Youngsville, one I expressed admiration for, especially its half-round, canopied sidewalk entry that protects students from the elements. “Bah!” he growled, citing lawsuits over its roofing system. Still, it remains a beautiful and functional building today.
At his 80th birthday party, one of his friends suggested to me with a slight smile that Brian could be a curmudgeon. “Maybe,” I thought. “But if he is, he’s our curmudgeon.”
He’ll be missed – though his legacy lives on through his annual endowed award for hand drawing by students at N.C. State’s College of Design.
The Kamphoefner Prize
One of the most coveted prizes in North Carolina architecture is the award for modern design established by Henry and Mabel Kamphoefner in 1988. It was first given to Norman Pease Jr. – and to Shawcroft in 1991.
The Kamphoefners set a high bar, seeking an architect or firm that “demonstrated a consistent integrity and devotion over an acceptable period of time to further the development of the modern movement in architecture without yielding to any of the undesirable current clichés, neomodernistic mannerisms or artless historicism that have flawed the building culture of today.”
Lofty? Yes. Opinionated? Absolutely. But North Carolina’s modern architecture is built upon these standards. This award is designed to encourage great work – no matter the age of the winners.
In 2017, it went to Raleigh’s Tonic Design – and partners Vinny Petrarca, 45, and Katherine Hogan, 36.
“For us, it’s significant because we’re probably some of the youngest recipients, and the first husband and wife to receive the award,” Hogan says.
The award brings with it a $10,000 prize, which these two plan to use for traveling the nation and surveying the work of other architects.
“We want to visit places and experience the people in those places and let it all soak in,” Petrarca says. “The best way to be an architect is to travel.”
In fact, the best way to be almost anything on this Earth is to travel – to see, to question, to remember and to bring it all back home.
AIA Firm of the Year
The architects at Raleigh’s Pearce Brinkley Cease + Lee faced a cultural challenge after its merger with Clark Nexsen five years ago.
Clark Nexsen is a firm that’s nearly 100 years old, with 400 architects and engineers in Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville, Macon, Ga., Virginia Beach and Northern Virginia. Assimilating all that meant that members of both firms needed to look at fresh ways to work together.
To their credit, they did exactly that. Over the past few years they’ve formed a committee to look at how to be more collaborative and idea-based. “We did some things to make us a better firm today,” says Dennis Stalling, design director at the firm. “People are willing to talk and increase the level of design excellence – whatever we need to do that is our top priority.”
Their efforts paid off. Clark Nexsen earned the state AIA’s designation of 2017 “Firm of the Year.” They did it with all-new academic projects for N.C. State, Wake County and Western Carolina University – and some very fine designs.
What’s an architecture firm to do when a client asks for an old building with a great view? If you’re the design team at Gensler, you look around Raleigh’s Warehouse District, before it becomes cool. And you take a 1950s, prefab Butler Building and breathe new life into it and its surroundings.
“We wanted to reshape the experience of the building, from warehouse to headquarters,” says Chad Parker, managing director and principal at Gensler’s Raleigh office. “When we got it, North West Street was not at the state of revitalization it is now – it’s hopping with activity today.”
For their client, Investments Management Corp. – a sponsor of startups in the food and beverage field – they opened up two 8-square-foot garage doors with windows out front. They added a combination of clerestory and skylights for daylight. And they created a mix of office and social spaces – including an outdoor porch with harvest table, inserted under an overhang – elevated over the street.
“There’s a warmth and a craft feel to the façade where’s it’s meeting the rigor of the Butler Building’s prefabrication,” he says.
For their efforts, they earned a 2017 AIA Honor Award.
We are fortunate in Raleigh to be able to enjoy this kind of diverse work from such gifted architects. Here’s hoping that in 2018, they’ll raise the bar even higher.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.