Back when I was single and worked in New York, I used to like business trips. They were often to second- or third-tier cities – places you would never choose to go to as destinations in themselves, but there was (almost) always something interesting once you got there. I would always try to add an extra day or two onto a trip so I could explore a place, and eventually I got to see a good part of the country. This trip has worked much the same way – there are the primary destinations, and then there are the places we’ve seen just because we were driving by, or had some other reason to go there. Raleigh was one of those – our reason for visiting was to see my cousins who live there, but once again we discovered a lot of interesting places.
We drove to Raleigh on two-lane roads from Virginia Beach, going along the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. (Greta thought the drive was worth it just to say she’d seen the Great Dismal Swamp.) The northeast North Carolina countryside is completely flat and pretty monotonous – cotton fields, poor small towns, and a growing number of photovoltaic farms replacing tobacco farms (since it has surprisingly many sunny days). Raleigh is back up in the Piedmont, and seeing some topography was a welcome change – it is a beautiful, rolling landscape.
Raleigh is close to Durham, Chapel Hill and Wake Forest, with all of their many universities anchoring the Research Triangle. It’s one of those southern cities that has been so inundated with outsiders that it doesn’t feel quite southern anymore (even to one of my cousins, a northern transplant herself.) The city feels like many other prosperous American cities of this size. Downtown, there’s a mix of 19th century commercial buildings, early 20th century office buildings and relatively banal postwar skyscrapers, as they had the good sense to not knock everything down. There is the district where old warehouses are being converted to hipper uses. There are the great old inner residential neighborhoods that have maintained, and there are the not-so-great older residential neighborhoods that are being rediscovered and gentrified. We’re starting to see patterns.
Raleigh is the state capital, so the downtown includes many state office buildings of the normal quality. The old State House from 1840 is quite fine, having been designed by Ithiel Town, AJ Davis and a few others.
As with many other older capitols, as the needs of the government outgrew the building, a new facility for the legislature was built nearby, and the capitol houses the governor’s office and the former assembly rooms which have been well-preserved.
The rotunda contains yet another sculpture of a Founding Father as a Roman, with an interesting history. The original statue of Washington was sculpted by Antonio Canova (selected on Jefferson’s recommendation) after 1815, but was destroyed in the capitol fire of 1831. This statue is a reproduction, based upon sketches and descriptions, but it is still does the job.
Outside there is a monument for the three presidents who were born in North Carolina. As we walked around the grounds we came across statues of people who are so obscure that we had never heard of them, so we wondered why all three presidents were packed into one monument instead of each getting his own. Perhaps it’s because they feel somewhat ambivalent about Johnson, and didn’t want to honor him too much (and it does look like he’s being nuzzled by Jackson’s horse).
These state buildings sit on a pompous and barren closed street / plaza, along with a couple of museums; it would take a lot of buses of school kids to bring this one to life. The state history museum is by C7 Architects (formerly Cambridge 7), and may be okay inside, but the exterior suffers from the same silly grandiosity you see in Washington DC – having a big phony exterior grid/framework is bad enough, but when it gets covered in stone I just can’t even look. It’s a good example of what happened in the late 80s, when very good modernist firms felt the need to make gestures towards Postmodernism. Grids often resulted. They couldn’t make themselves go overtly classical, so explicit post and lintel systems ruled. And little pyramids.
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences was designed by Verner Johnson, a firm which seems to specialize in science museums. The expertise shows: it’s not a building which wows you with the architecture (more watered-down PoMo), but it is a superb natural science museum. It had many of the things that you see in any natural history museum these days – such as a few dinosaurs – but the strong focus is upon the environment and natural history of North Carolina. This also seems to be a pattern these days – regional museums and zoos are focussing on the environment and biology of the region, rather than doing a mediocre job trying to explain the whole world. This museum had excellent sections on the coastal region, on the Piedmont, and on the mountains. There were full-scale dioramas for each of these:
that were really informative and comprehensive. By the end we had a good handle on North Carolina’s geography and environment – much better than what we had gotten from the college-level geography text Greta’s been reading.
We were there on a Monday when these rooms are not used, but supposedly visitors can see staff at work and hear them explain what they are doing. This would be quite valuable if it works as billed. We’ve gotten behind the scenes and talked to scientists at a few museums, and it’s been one of Greta’s favorite parts of the trip – not just seeing objects in a museum, but talking to those who do the work, and starting to understand what science is all about.
On our way out of town we caught the North Carolina Museum of Art. The1983 building was again designed by Ed Stone (did North Carolina get him because Rockefeller had Harrison and Abramowitz tied up?), which is fairly innocuous for him (they later replaced all the marble with brick) and is used for temporary exhibitions (including an excellent one on Escher while we were there).
The new building for the permanent collection is by Thomas Phifer, and is a remarkably rigorous and elegant building. It resembles Piano’s work not in appearance (the exterior seems to be Mies Goes to Scandinavia with Steven Holl), but in having the main expression for the building through the articulation of the systems – skin, structure, and lighting.
The building structure is on a strict module, with the differentiation between structure/service walls and spatial partitions very evident (although he doesn’t feel the need to pull the partitions off the grid or angle them to make the point).
You can see the influence of Mies, Kahn, and Aalto, without it seeming busy or forced. It’s rational, rigorous, neutral, flexible. Perhaps too neutral – there isn’t any compelling spatial design – nothing moves you through the building, there are no architectural surprises. It’s a curator’s dream – well-lit, flexible space which can be reconfigured to suit any installation. But much preferable to an object building that is all about architectural over-reaching while diminishing the experience of the art.
Frankly, it’s quite a bit better than the collection, which has not-great works from a wide range of eras. Raleigh wasn’t a big city with a lot of money in the 19th century, when you could still buy great things, so they have mainly pedestrian work by big names, or interesting work by people you’ve not heard of. However, they did have a huge collection of Rodin sculptures, including one i’ve never seen anywhere else, and which I liked better than the others – Old Man Looking out the Window.