Now that retail, office, and residential space at The Dillon in Raleigh’s Warehouse District is nearly overcrowded, while Union Station mixes 12 trains into and out of town every day, it’s time to give both buildings a sophisticated look consider.
They are harbingers of a bigger, more energetic downtown Raleigh, and more is to come. So certain questions are appropriate: How do they architecturally respond to their physical and historical context? How do they work together – and separately? What about their size and materials?
But do these two modern buildings raise the bar and set higher design standards for a growing inner city? This is, after all, a forward-looking location with a codified comprehensive plan that includes 40-, 20-, and 12-story structures over the next few decades.
In other words, do these two new buildings inspire investors, developers and designers to take the necessary risks to create a beautiful and profitable urban environment for the future? Are they breaking new ground or are they just imitating Raleigh’s status quo?
Answers to these questions should influence this city’s will to invent or import new architecture – and build its own iconic skyline.
Raleigh’s Union Station with the Dillon Building in the background. July Leonard [email protected]
The origins of Union Station
No two buildings could be more different in terms of location and history.
Union Station at 510 W. Martin St. was designed to replace an inadequate terminal two blocks south. The proposed new location was problematic – one the state and city chose long before the project was awarded to Raleigh-based design firm Clearscapes.
On site was the viaduct building from the 1960s – a huge, open, three- to four-story steel mill that the architects were supposed to reuse. It is located about half a block west of South West Street, where existing railroad tracks prevented the station from being placed on the roadside. Clearscapes’ challenge was to get travelers to their new train station in a renovated factory and to include existing tracks in their planning.
It wasn’t an easy task.
“We had two options – go over or under the rails,” says Steve Schuster, principal at Clearscapes.
Going over meant building a bridge twenty-six feet above you; go under, tunnel 10 feet under. So Clearscapes decided to dig underneath, open an underground entrance to the train station, and lift pedestrians inward via stairs, elevator, and escalator. The result is a long, horizontal descent interrupted by a sharp and dramatic climb to an enticing view above us.
In particular, there was a lack of parking spaces, 40 spaces for taxes and the disabled in the state and municipal system. This is where developers John Kane and Duda / Paine Architects came in. Part of Kane’s commitment to the city when he agreed to develop The Dillon was that 350 of his 980 parking spaces would be open to the public.
The result is a nine-story, eight-story parking platform with offices on top and five stories with adjoining residential buildings. The ground floor is filled with restaurants and retailers like Urban Outfitters. It also preserves remains of brick walls from the original Dillon warehouse on site.
While Union Station extends horizontally, the Dillon is decidedly vertical and overlooks the station that made its 17 floors possible. Although The Dillon was developed with private funding and the Station was developed with public funding, they have a symbiotic relationship. They form an exemplary public-private partnership: They serve the community, benefit from the developer and increase the city’s tax base.
The two also work together in spaces for public activities. With Union Station leaning back from West Street, Clearscapes has created a public space that takes up half a city block. A recent visit there revealed a new vision of citizen activation. About 100 people gathered around impromptu pop-ups and permanent seats and discussed a public meeting about Dix Park. Arrangements have been made for speakers, seating and refreshments in the terminal.
That’s just the beginning. Across the street at Hargett and West, there is an enclosed courtyard at The Dillon, perfect for performance art, wine tastings and dinners, and special events. When you close West Street you have a three-part harmony of space, courtyard and food truck space. If you close Hargett one block north, you’ll reach CAM Raleigh, the contemporary art museum in downtown Raleigh, for an arts festival.
This brings up a flaw in The Dillon’s relationship with his neighbors. Sure, there is a huge door that Urban Outfitters uses to open onto Hargett Street across from CAM’s large canopy. However, there is no pedestrian walkway to approach CAM. A look back at how well architects Michael Stevenson and Louis Cherry connected the once proposed, now dispersed Lightner building to Nash Square shows how big the missed opportunity is. As architect Frank Harmon points out, we are all better off thinking beyond the property line – and not just about the bottom line.
Urban Outfitters at The Dillon opens onto Hargett Street across from CAM’s large canopy, but there is no inter-building interaction such as B. a pedestrian path approaching CAM. July Leonard [email protected]
Scale and materials
This recent visit also exposed one of Union Station’s shortcomings in terms of human scale. As I stood on the corner of Hargett and West Streets, a single question arose from two strangers, one walking and one driving. Your frequently asked question was, “How do I get in?” Yes, soon the signs will go up and I know the location was difficult, but the architecture is supposed to make it easy to find your way around. Entrances should report themselves – and not necessarily with signs.
On the flip side, the human size at The Dillon is vastly enhanced by retail on the ground floor. As the architect Turan Duda says, shop windows in the street offer variety, texture and an individual experience. Moving from the curb to the enclosed courtyard to the elevator provides a positive and non-intimidating psychological transition from the sidewalk to the parking deck, office or apartment.
As for the materials, both projects are done in steel, glass and brick, though Union Station uses wood to warm its interiors and The Dillon also uses aluminum for the exteriors. Duda / Paine preferred to emphasize the horizontality of the building rather than its height – first suggested terracotta tapes to match the brick base and then reduced them to red-painted metal panels to unify the exterior.
Materially, the two work well together, although Union Station was designed before The Dillon.
“I give Duda / Paine full credit for this,” says Schuster. “The colors are different but the palette is similar, so a conversation takes place between the two buildings.”
The view of Union Station from the top of its stairs is like a space that is several hundred meters wide open, and your gaze is drawn to a huge white clock on top of the ticket counters. July Leonard [email protected]
On their own, the exteriors of these two buildings don’t necessarily disappoint, but they’re not a source of great excitement either. Their beauty is only revealed when viewed together – from the drop-off point at Union Station, they look back at The Dillon. There they work together visually on an almost breathtaking level.
The inspiration of Dillon – a 1978 book by theorist Colin Rowe entitled “Collage City” – has already been explored in this column. It’s a layered look with the upper levels sloping back slightly and a four-tiered “sky window” inserted into the south-facing elevation. My biggest problem is that it doesn’t rise as high as you’d expect a tower to be, but that’s exactly what architects are after. Instead of reaching for the clouds, dealing with life on earth is massive.
Like Union Station. After all, it should move people. Clearscapes did an admirable job of transforming an opaque industrial cathedral into a transparent public structure made of glass and steel. My problem with this, however, is that its exterior doesn’t inspire us to expect a luxurious train ride like John Russell Pope did with Richmond’s early 20th-century Broad Street Station or Daniel Burnham with Washington’s 1907 Union Station. [Correction: A previous version of this story said early 19th century.]
The view from The Dillon inspired – it’s not uncommon for 50 yoga practitioners to enjoy the downtown sunrise on their landscaped sky deck on the ninth floor. July Leonard [email protected]
On the other hand, train travel is no longer our travel choice. It’s more like the third or fourth in line.
The enduring beauty of these two is not in their outside, but inside. The first view of Union Station from the stairs is breathtaking. The room is wide open to several hundred meters, and your eyes are drawn to a huge white clock on the ticket counters. And when you leave, you see Raleigh’s skyline, which lies before you through tall windows, like the proverbial patient of the poet TS Eliot on a table.
The view from inside The Dillon is also inspiring. It’s not uncommon for 50 yoga practitioners to enjoy the sunrise downtown on their landscaped sky deck on the ninth floor. Or to see apartment dwellers, fridges and picnic baskets in tow, on the same path for sunset.
These are of course successful buildings. But there are lessons to be learned here for the future. Let’s check them against the standards set by Vitruvius, the Roman architect from the first century BC:
Joy? Let’s just say there is room to explore the Raleigh skyline further.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design and publishes a digital design magazine on Architectsandartisans.com. He can be reached at [email protected]