From the late 1940s through the 1960s, Raleigh was a proving ground for the architectural movement known as Modernism. Modernist design, characterized by simplicity of form, minimal ornamentation and innovative use of materials, drew from the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and noted European designers. The number of architecturally significant residences and offices built in the city attest to the movement's impressive local impact.
The source of the city's new status was the School of Design at North Carolina State College (later North Carolina State University). Established in 1948 under the deanship of Henry Kamphoefner (1908-1990), the School of Design quickly became a conduit for new European and South American ideas, as well as those of their chief American proponent, Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on North Carolina architecture to that point had been negligible. Dean Henry Kamphoefner recruited several modernist architects as faculty members, and was instrumental in influencing other modernists to come to North Carolina to practice. He also brought internationally-known architects to the school to lecture and to lead studio workshops.
The School's architecture instructors, while few in number, did much to consolidate Modernism as a new architectural force, leavening the training of student designers with on-the-ground experimentation. Faculty members manifested their concepts in a series of residences designed for themselves, for other faculty members, or for a small group of clients interested in new ideas in architecture. Built for the most part on relatively ample, wooded suburban lots, located on what then were the outskirts of the city, a key element in most of the designs is a careful integration of the house with its site.
The first of these houses were strongly influenced by the work of Wright, most notably the Kamphoefner, Fadum and Ritcher houses, all of which evoke the flat roof, large windows and open living spaces of Wright's Usonian Houses. Wright's Usonian concepts dovetailed well with the School of Design architects' interest in modular design, in passive solar climate control and the integration of buildings into their sites, in the use of low-cost mass-produced industrial materials and techniques for constructing housing, as well as in a wealth of aesthetic issues having to do with creating an architecture that was expressive both of structure and of the conditions of the modern age.
In the early 1950s the design concepts of Mies van der Rohe became increasingly apparent, as witnessed in the Matsumoto and Small houses. Both exhibit a Miesian concern for articulating space by horizontal and vertical planes; for exposed framework; for a classical definition of base, body and roof; and for the integration of outdoors and indoors through large expanses of glazing. Like the Wrightian houses, these residences were well-received in architectural circles, and were widely published in the architectural press.
It was the faculty's institutional and commercial buildings, however, that attracted the widest attention. Easily the most celebrated is the 1952 J. S. Dorton Arena, located on the North Carolina State Fair Grounds. Originally intended as a facility for livestock judging, the revolutionary design by émigré Polish architect Matthew Nowicki consists of two opposing parabolic arches of concrete balanced by a network of crosswise cables suspended between them, creating the unique saddle-shaped hyperbolic parabaloid roof form and a totally column-free interior. The building earned international acclaim, and confirmed Raleigh's reputation as a proving ground for modernist architectural innovation.
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