Glassy design gets mixed views

Architects on Tuesday laid out a glassy vision for downtown Raleigh's mammoth new convention center but called it a work in progress one month from a final decision about its appearance.

Gone from earlier versions is a large free-standing tower at one front corner of the building and an ivy-covered porch at the other.Designers now are featuring a large glassed-in central entrance that resembles a traditional portico and a plaza that connects the center to Fayetteville Street Mall a block away.They are showing cream-colored stone and bricks, avoiding red as too pedestrian.

And they are looking at hanging in a large hallway 50 to 100 pieces of funky colored glass, made for the center by artists in Western North Carolina.

Views were mixed Tuesday about the most current drawings as elected officials and others took their first looks at them.

Many said they were not yet satisfied that the center would become a well-received building in the city.

"I think they're still trying to figure out what it is about this that will say 'Raleigh, North Carolina,' " said Kenn Gardner, an architect who is chairman of the Wake County commissioners.

"Right now," he added, "we're seeing the five or six special things that could be on the front of this building. When you have that, none become special things. I think it needs to be simplified, boiled down."

Members of the city's convention center commission were more harsh. They described it as being too contemporary and out of line with what Raleigh needs.

"When I look at this, in all honesty, I see an airport," said Sonny Mountcastle, the commission's vice chairman.

"I don't want to see a contemporary building like this downtown," said Don Walston, owner of one of the Triangle's largest residential real estate firms and a commission member. "It will stand out like a sore thumb."

Public viewing Oct. 12

A final design is to be presented publicly Oct. 12, with approval set for two days later. The City Council and Wake commissioners will make the final decision.

No one has said the latest designs should be scrapped.

But critics Tuesday emphasized that significant changes are in order, mostly to "soften" the structure.

Architects said they are listening and plan to simplify the appearance.

But the building is challenging to design, they said. It is big because of what it houses: huge rooms and spaces for large meetings and events in what will be one of the state's largest structures.

At 500,000 square feet, it could hold the BTI Center for the Performing Arts or the Capitol with plenty of room to spare.

The $192 million center will have meeting rooms, a grand ballroom and a 150,000-square-foot below-ground exhibit hall on the south end of downtown.

The architects point out they've heard wide-ranging views about the design in dozens of meetings.

"Some want to make sure it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb," said Steve Schuster, whose Clearscapes firm is one of the center's designers. "And then some say they want an icon, which by definition sticks out. ... It's a balance trying to do both. And, folks, that's a tough job."

The designers said they want a building that reflects the past but is still modern.

They pointed out that their plan is similar to the well-regarded BTI Center in that it would have a center section flanked by balanced sides.

The BTI is mostly stone in the center, with glass on the wings.

The new center would be the opposite: more glass in the center with stone or brick on the flanks.

Dudley Lacy, an architect with O'Brien/Atkins of Research Triangle Park and a partner on the design, pointed out that Raleigh's architecture isn't dominated by one style.

The Capitol and BTI Center are probably the most elegant, classical and well-known, he said, but after that it's a "smorgasbord" of contemporary high-rises and the state government complex.

"This is a contemporary building with a contemporary purpose," he said. "But we can look at organizing and simplifying this front. We can look at being softer and providing more balance."

600450 Glassy design gets mixed views
Date: 17 September 2004

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