Frank Harmon, architect of the new 12,000-square-foot AIA North Carolina headquarters in Raleigh, describes the building as a David to the looming Goliath of the neighboring Archdale Building. The latter, a monolithic white stone tower sliced by vertical rows of dark glass, was built in 1977 for state government offices. The comparatively diminutive, wood-clad AIA sits below it on an island in the high-traffic intersection of Wilmington and Peace streets. “It really holds the corner,” said Harmon.
Amid this architectural standoff, the kind of traffic that defines the area is slowly shifting from car to pedestrian, and it was with this in mind that Harmon designed the new AIA building, officially known as the Center for Architecture and Design. “It’s in a no-man’s-land in between neighborhoods now, but we hoped that the building could serve as a role model. It’s likely to become a much more lively area,” said Harmon, noting the repositioning of an old train station across the street into a popular retail center and a proposed residential development housing up to 3,000 people that may be happening just next door.
Harmon’s design, which was selected in an open competition of North Carolina–based architects in 2008, speaks to this optimistic vision of the neighborhood’s future. The building pushes up against the northern edge of the site, its dark zinc-clad facade abutting the sidewalk and even incorporating a shelter for a bus stop. From this side, the building seems ahead of its time, just waiting for an urbane streetscape to fill in around it.
But on the opposite side, the building has a much sunnier disposition, nodding to the present as well as the past: pedestrian-friendly landscaping subtly camouflages a 36-space parking lot, while generous eaves evoking the local vernacular shelter the southern facade. Striking yellow cypress harvested from the Great Dismal Swamp in the northeastern part of the state clads this side of the building. “We wanted it to look like it belonged to North Carolina,” said Harmon, of the form and materials. “It has a friendly and a tactile quality that public buildings need.”
The building, which opened this spring, aims to be a model not just for human-scale design but also for sustainability. Ample daylighting, rainwater collection, and a geothermal heating and cooling system, among other features, have put it on track for a LEED Platinum rating. Inside, the space drew inspiration from the AIA Center for Architecture in New York, with a mix of flexible spaces that can accommodate a variety of programming. With a state membership over 2,000 strong and North Carolina State University’s School of Architecture and College of Design nearby, the new center has a built-in audience.
Members gave $600,000 toward the cost of building the center, but to help cover expenses the AIA is leasing office space on its top floor and—taking a cue from its NYC counterpart—also renting out the larger public spaces for events.
But in terms of winning the approval of the general public, the chapter must wage an uphill battle. Confronted with David and Goliath, Raleigh residents are the one throwing stones: they recently voted the center the least attractive building in the city, just ahead of the Archdale.