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The design for the new Raleigh City Hall campus has to be ambitious

The master plan proposed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill for the Civic Campus for the city of Raleigh envisages three towers to be built across Hargett Street from Nash Square over the next 20 to 30 years.

The master plan proposed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill for the Civic Campus for the city of Raleigh envisages three towers to be built across Hargett Street from Nash Square over the next 20 to 30 years.

A new shot of architectural adrenaline awaits you in downtown Raleigh.

It will take the form of the city’s new citizen campus. Three buildings are planned for the next 20 to 30 years. The entire campus faces Nash Square, which is bordered by South McDowell, South Dawson, and West Hargett Streets.

We can imagine what this transformation will look like after the city has selected a team for its first phase made up of Henning Larsen’s New York office and local architects from RATIO. To that end, we can look back on a 2008 proposal for the same location and public building designed by Henning Larsen and currently in operation in downtown Minneapolis.

And although the design for the first building has only just begun, one thing is certain: a city block best known for its functional architectural style is about to undergo a citizen-friendly renovation.

“It will activate a street level that is now cold, dark and state,” said Blair Hinkle, the city’s assistant director of engineering services.

Phase I, the East Civic Tower, will be a 20-story building valued at $ 190 million that now houses an empty police headquarters. The existing building, designed in 1960 by local architect Milton Small, is on the southeast corner of South McDowell and West Hargett Streets across from Nash Square. It is intended for demolition.

The new 420,000 square meter building will serve as the town hall and house 1,400 city workers, including 1,100 people who now work in five different buildings. There will also be conference rooms, council chambers and underground parking spaces.

Phase II, the West Civic Tower, is planned for the site of the current Raleigh Municipal Building. There will be more office space – part of it is rented.

Phase III should stand behind the east building and offer the potential for a public-private partnership to create a parking deck, a hotel, affordable living space or additional offices.

In West Hargett, the new City Hall building will bring a new kind of life to this downtown block.

“It will start a change in the street scene and be a great civic space and addition to Nash Square,” says Kristopher Takacs. He is the executive director of the Washington office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, which led the campus master plan process in 2018.

As is so often the case, the space between buildings – especially between the east and west towers – offers the public a chance to break through. There the potential to extend the park-like atmosphere of Nash Square to the citizen campus is not only tempting, but also desirable.

In addition, the facade of the entire block on Hargett Street will be visually and physically connected to a revitalized future Nash Square – a tree-lined walk-in hinge to downtown and the warehouse district a few blocks south.

CivicCampusMasterPlan-013.jpg Phase I of the Citizens’ Campus will replace the McDowell building on Hargett Street with a 20-story tower to consolidate 1,100 city workers currently in five separate buildings. City of Raleigh

Echoes of an older plan

If all of these visionary city maps sound familiar to long-term residents, so are they. In 2008, a team led by Michael Stevenson of the Raleigh office of KlingStubbins and Louis Cherry, principal at Cherry Huffman Architects, was hired by the city to design a 17-story tower in the same location.

The Lightner Public Safety Center, named after Raleigh’s first African-American mayor, would have been the first of three towers to occupy Nash Square.

Stevenson, now Head of Practice at Perkins + Will in Durham, is one of the triangle’s most talented urban planners. Cherry, designer and architect of the Cameron Village Library, is responsible for some of the most elegant architectural interiors in this community.

Unfortunately, their talents alone were not enough to build the Lightner Center. After spending nearly $ 10 million on planning and construction documents, the city gave in to political pressure over tax increases on the $ 208 million project and dropped it in 2013.

Now the original plan – or something very similar – has been revived. In August 2018, the city council voted to push SOM’s new master plan for the project, The News & Observer reported.

“By and large, we planned this block back in 2008 and all of the general principles we developed are being applied,” says Stevenson. “We had three buildings in our final expansion, in a slightly different layout, but a very similar program.”

lightner street view.jpg The 2008 design for the Lightner Public Safety Center by architects Michael Stevenson and Louis Cherry would have activated Hargett Street and engaged Nash Square. Architects Michael Stevenson and Louis Cherry

The need for beautiful architecture

However, the proposed Lightner building was more than part of a plan. It was a transparently beautiful structure that was ambitiously designed by local architects – only to become a big missed opportunity. And the truth today is that Raleigh needs more beautiful buildings for its skyline, not less.

Architects are a competitive lot, and a building like Lightner would raise the bar for what comes after. There are many more 20- and 40-story buildings in the future of our city, and mediocrity is no longer an option for a city as sophisticated as Raleigh today.

That is why this new east tower is so important for the city center. The city took a leadership role last year when it launched a nationwide competition to find a design team. Ultimately, what we get from the winners will change both the skyline and the perception of this city.

The city’s call for proposals “spoke of the iconic remodeling of Raleigh, a very important building as it will redefine city government for generations to come,” said Hal Bowen, director and studio manager at Raleigh office of RATIO. “It’s not a temple or an Eiffel Tower, but a building meant to refer to the citizens of Raleigh,” he said.

Raleigh Civic Campus Raleigh’s existing City Hall on West Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh. Chris Seward Photo of the 2014 News & Observer File

A building in context

RATIO’s 24-strong Raleigh team – part of a much larger national company – will be responsible for delivery, while Henning Larsen will be responsible for design. The company is currently dismantling a smaller, 11-story public service building for city workers in downtown Minneapolis.

Henning Larsen is a contemporary architecture firm that prides itself on working with clients, partners and consultants. Interactive public engagement will also be part of the corporate process here.

Its architecture does not have a typical style like Frank Gehry or Richard Meier, but tries to capture the essence of a certain place.

“Our architecture is about the context – social and geographical – and not about a designer,” says Michael Sørensen, partner and design director at the Copenhagen-based company. “This is an opportunity to reach the people of Raleigh and the green of Nash Square.”

Henning Larsen Minneapolis.jpg A new 11-story public service building designed by architects in Henning Larsen is currently under construction in Minneapolis and is due to open later this year. For the first phase of the new citizen campus, Raleigh has selected a team consisting of Henning Larsen’s New York office and local architects from RATIO. This includes a new town hall. Henning Larsen

The building is also influenced by other environmental factors. Balconies are not placed where strong winds are a problem. Natural light is used for the benefit of employees, with sophisticated glazing to control the heating inside.

“They examine restrictions and requirements as well as influences of the microclimate,” says Bowen.

The city has loosened its height from 250 feet so the building can now climb to any height that makes sense economically and aesthetically – as it adds more natural light and reduces the need for electric lighting.

“Access to this daylight is one of the main concerns,” says Mike McElderry, Associate Partner at Henning Larsen. “It affects wellness, health and productivity – with intuitive spaces where employees can be inspired.”

The employees who will work in the new tower will benefit from this. But the architects also consider the interaction between government and people.

“It will redefine services to citizens with a customer-friendly approach,” says Bowen. “It will be a facility with a customer service center on the first floor that will take you to an office to pay a bill or get a license.”

The city asked for an iconic and inspiring structure, while Henning Larsen’s design is based on people and the environment. Neither direction excludes the other.

“The icon becomes a by-product of the internal design,” says Sørensen.

That begs another important question: will this be a graceful addition to the Raleigh skyline – and a harbinger of the buildings to come?

“Great architecture should be beautiful, but that’s not the only reason to create architecture,” says McElderry.

He’s right, of course. Given the history, function, and future of this place, a beautiful building is perfectly fine.

Raleigh’s character – and our own self-esteem – depend on it.

J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications and publishes a magazine for digital design at Architectsandartisans.com. He can be reached at [email protected]

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