In the 1960s film, A is for Architecture, frame after frame of architectural masterpieces —The Guggenheim, The Parthenon, Tokyo’s Olympic Arena — flicker across the screen. A narrator reads, “Architecture is the making and reshaping of our physical environment. It is the design of a single room and the planning of a city.”
Ninety seconds into the film, an image of Dorton Arena appears, followed shortly by the Biltmore Estate, then the North Carolina General Assembly building. The narrator continues, “We have in North Carolina a heritage of good architecture. Look around you. Indeed these buildings some old, some new, some restored, are witness to our historic heritage of outstanding architecture.”
The film, written and produced by Ann Smart for then NBC Raleigh affiliate WPTF-AM, explores North Carolina’s storied architecture history and the trade itself. The “architect” is cast as a steward of urban development; an idealized shepherd of orderliness and sustainability; the hero who can bring our cities back from the chaos and the consequences of rapid industrialization, growth and modernization. Early in the film, narrator Ted Daniels declares, “To preserve our heritage, to provide the new environment of tomorrow is the mandate of the architect.”
Fast forward 50 years to Raleigh, North Carolina’s architectural heart. Tech companies, start-ups, hip restaurants, thriving breweries and a vibrant arts scene have delivered the city into the 21st century. It’s now one of the fastest growing places in the country.
Great opportunity and responsibility comes with such growth. But many of the urban problems described in A is for Architecture — traffic congestion, insufficient mass transportation and pollution — are current issues for Raleigh. The question of how to keep Raleigh liveable and affordable for everyone was central to this fall’s Raleigh City Council election. It’s a question architects Craig Kerins and Robby Johnston think about all the time.
Craig and Robby, co-owners of the modern design-and-build firm The Raleigh Architecture Company, are at the epicenter of Raleigh's rebirth. Originally focused on custom-built, single-family residences, the team has designed and built a series of striking modern homes in neighborhoods throughout the city, perhaps most notably for musician Joe Kwon of The Avett Brothers. But the aesthetic and quality of their work has attracted young entrepreneurs who value unique, modern work spaces. Since launching The Raleigh Architecture Company in 2012, Craig and Robby have retrofitted some of the city’s most popular restaurant and retail spaces including Videri Chocolate Factory, Trophy Brewery, Slingshot Coffee, Crank Arm Brewing, State of Beer, and Standard Foods, and Arrow Haircuts.
This new wave of urban entrepreneurs got started around the same time Craig and Robby did, and Craig says, “It’s been really satisfying to be a part of that community, that energy.”
Craig and Robby are conscious of their place in Raleigh’s revitalization and in North Carolina’s architectural story. Their use of clean lines, large windows, open floor plans, and striking geometry is distinctly Modernist, yet their designs are inspired by North Carolina traditions and history. Many of their projects feature indigenous North Carolina woods often juxtaposed with steel alloys, a nod to the state’s industrial history. Creative placement of large cantilevers, which promote energy efficiency through shade, create modern porches for clients who value the function of a southern porch. The Raleigh Architecture Company's work represents a new chapter of Raleigh’s — and North Carolina’s — significant Modernist architecture history.
As documented in North Carolina Modernist Houses’ (NCMH) digital archive, our state has the third largest concentration of Modernist homes in the country, next only to Los Angeles and Long Island. Many of these homes can be found in Raleigh.
The prevalence of residential Modernism has much to do with Henry Kamphoefner, the founding dean of NC State’s School of Design. From 1948 to 1972, Kamphoefner built a world class architecture school and North Carolina’s modernist movement.
An advocate of modern architecture, “Kamphoefner encouraged both students and faculty to have private practices,” says NCMH founder and director George Smart. George, son of now deceased North Carolina architect George McCollum Smart and Ann Smart (aforementioned writer and producer of A is for Architecture), says Kamphoefner recruited students and faculty who were excited about Modernism. He explains, “He wanted people to get the experience of actually doing the projects, not just studying them, so he got these people to design houses for their family and friends. That’s why we have so many of them.”
The end of Kamphoefner’s tenure at NC State coincidentally parallels the decline of Modernist movement which spanned from the First World War to the early 70s. Smart credits the popularity of Mad Men for the renewed interest in Modernism.
Craig and Robby embrace this legacy. “There is a rich history we kind of seeing ourselves building into,” says Craig. Sometimes for inspiration, he continues, “We go visit those houses around Raleigh and around the Triangle.”
The Raleigh Architecture Company’s work is in active conversation with Raleigh’s commercial and residential trends and needs. The homes they’ve designed and built in Hungry Neck, a small neighborhood in East Raleigh, starkly contrast the generic mixed-use condominiums popping up throughout the city.
The Hungry Neck project began with two houses Craig and Robby dubbed “The Edentwins,” a reference to their Edenton Street location. The duo identified an infill area — an undeveloped space between two homes — and sought city and neighborhood approval to develop the plot. Once approved, they built two complimentary modern homes that share a common green space. Although many of the homes on the block are at least 50 years old, neighbors welcomed the new modern construction.
“[As architects] you’re rarely forced to talk and think about the bigger implications of what you’re doing,” says Robby, but “There was an intentional community component to all of these buildings.”
“People were excited to see [new] people moving in,” he continues. “It wasn’t about the building… it was about who would be there.” He remembers a neighbor saying it’d been forty years since she’d heard a child laugh on the street.
Mindful that architecture can transform the culture of a neighborhood, Craig and Robby believe creative use of infill spaces can address the city’s need for high density housing and facilitate stronger community connections with neighbors.
Craig and Robby say studies have shown that plugging in people and buildings in infill areas make neighborhoods safer and more tight-knit. They are confident it’s made a difference in Hungry Neck, where they see longtime homeowners connecting and reconnecting with neighbors and sprucing up their own properties. Today, Hungry Neck is home to five Raleigh Architecture homes. Craig and Robby’s latest venture, a set of “built to sale” homes on Wynne Street in east Raleigh, mark the next phase of their residential work.
Thus far, Raleigh Architecture Company has been cautious about working in downtown neighborhoods. “We think that mixed neighborhoods make good neighborhoods,” says Craig. “And [we believe] in letting everyone have an opportunity to be there. To date most of the work we have done is on vacant lots, so we haven’t necessarily done any displacing. We are selective about what we do, and we try to work with other people who have the same values and goals and see it as a responsible way to work in these neighborhoods.”
Raleigh is changing and growing and Robby believes that currently, “Everyone’s looking for a closer relationship to the city.” For a midsize city like Raleigh, that means pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, creative energy-efficient and high-density housing, fewer cars and more bikes, and, as Robby says, prioritizing “the amenities that the city has versus the amenities that your house has.”
The Raleigh Architecture Company has every intention of helping build that Raleigh.
The Urban Institute predicts the population of the greater Raleigh area will double by 2030. Choices made today about real estate development, public transportation and public parks will determine whether the city can preserve its local culture and diversity while it accommodates rapid growth. The Raleigh Architecture Company hopes to be an integral part of Raleigh’s evolution.
With transit innovation and the Dorothea Dix park renovation on Raleigh’s horizon, Robby believes Raleigh’s best years are still ahead of it and wants The Raleigh Architecture Company to be a part of future civic and institutional projects that enhance the amenities the city offers the public.
A is for Architecture declares, “The architect of tomorrow will be vitally concerned with rescuing our cities from their chaotic and ugly condition.” Craig and Robby represent the architects of tomorrow, and they take the philosophical role of their work and where it fits within the larger future of Raleigh very seriously.
“Buildings are markers of time. Technology, government philosophies — buildings are always responding to that,” says Robby. “It’s important to keep that fabric evolving with new architecture.”
A cornerstone of Raleigh’s new creative class, The Raleigh Architecture Company is most certainly leaving its mark on a city that’s only just becoming what it wants to be.