It's a little embarrassing.
Here we are in Raleigh, wearing our "world-class" buttons and boasting a College of Design at N.C. State that's among the nation's best. So why is there such a "disconnect"—as Robin Abrams, the head of the college's architecture program, put it delicately—"between the aspirations of Raleigh residents and the reality of our built environment?"
In other words, why is so much of the new in Raleigh blah? And, really, does it matter?
Yes, it does. This is why a group that includes Abrams and Frank Thompson, chair emeritus of CAM Raleigh and the man whose dogged determination is the reason we have a contemporary art museum, hosted a symposium last week called "Build Raleigh Better: Innovation, Architecture, and Creating a World-Class City." They had the perfect place for it at CAM, a triumph of design that tells us how powerful small buildings can be and that breaking the mold in Raleigh will be a long slough.
The group signaled its aspirations by leading off with Paul Goldberger, the renowned architecture lecturer and critic for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
Goldberger's latest, Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry, is a biography about the architect of such masterpieces as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—self-described on its website as "the most important structure of its time," one that "changed the way people think about museums." No doubt that's true, and Bilbao, formerly a fading industrial city, is now a tourist destination and the heart of a Basque cultural revival.
Perhaps, Goldberger said, there's an iconic structure in Raleigh's future to rival the Guggenheim, or the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
But such wonders are serendipitous, and they emerge from an unpredictable alchemy of political, financial, philanthropic and design elements. Moreover, as in Bilbao, these forces conjoin—and a Gehry comes in—after a city has laid sufficient groundwork.
Groundwork? Goldberger meant the word literally. "It may be heresy for an architecture critic to say it," he told us. "But the street is more important than the building."
And on the street, Goldberger said, the quality of the "ordinary" buildings is more important than having a tall one, even a rare iconic one. It's like finishing a sentence with an exclamation point: "You need a lot of ordinary letters and words put together well to make a sentence work—before the exclamation point is going to mean anything."
The real problem today, Goldberger told us, isn't a shortage of "special buildings." It's that we've forgotten how to build ordinary buildings well and knit them together as "an urban fabric we like and want to be in."
He didn't present it as a Raleigh problem, though we suffer from it. Rather, it's the result of two factors that exist in every city to varying degrees. One is "big flows of capital"—money—sloshing in from the outside and looking to finance the most generic, low-quality, high-profit products. The second is local leaders who go with the flows.
Simple enough, though Goldberger's antidotes weren't. We need strong and assertive city planning. Our commercial developers must up their games. We need a political and civic culture that cares about good design and understands that it adds value to buildings and cities in the long run, bringing equal or higher profits. We must be willing, as a city, to assert our identity.
He added these points:
• Density is vital. But density means the number of buildings, not just how many people per square mile: "Great cities are full of buildings, the only open spaces are intentional." Infill is critical.
• Preserve older buildings. Goldberger quoted the great urbanist Lewis Mumford: "In a city, time becomes visible."
• Respect what we have. It's not necessary to mimic the style of existing buildings. Do respect their scale and resist bigger ones that cause older neighborhoods to "look adrift."
• Maximum density goes downtown. "Density must be managed intelligently," he said. "It is important to not allow maximum density everywhere."
• Use incentive zoning. Tie approval of tall buildings downtown to open space (plazas, public squares) on the ground. "If a developer doesn't want to do it and the city doesn't want to force its hand," he said, "then you have a problem."
• Drinking on sidewalks? They've been drinking and eating on the sidewalks of Paris for 200 years, Goldberger said.
Let developers build whatever and wherever they want, Goldberger warned, and Raleigh could wind up looking like Atlanta. We all gasped, but he laughed and took it back. In that moment, I flashed on Raleigh's new Unified Development Ordinance, which invites big, generic buildings all over the city, without much in the way of design standards or incentives for quality.
Why does any of this matter? It's because cities can offer the "civilizing, nurturing environment" we need. Our environment, like art, can enhance our lives.
As Goldberger said, "The generic city stops caring about things that are different."
Things that are different, and people, too. But welcoming difference is what cities must be about.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Building blocks"