Photo © John Edward Linden

Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh

Brooks + Scarpa Architects


Urban revival Carolina style: Located in a restored produce warehouse, an innovative art center links past and present in an emerging historic district with a promising future.

By Linda C. Lentz

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One of the country's “best” and “fastest-growing” cities (according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Forbes), Raleigh has a lot going on in and around its 144 square miles: North Carolina state government facilities, major universities, a vibrant tech industry, and a multifaceted cultural scene. Luckily, a quorum of local officials, professionals, and entrepreneurs strives for an urbanscape that both looks to the future of this small, thriving metropolis and retains its Southern charms.

The city's busy downtown is a hybrid collection of buildings dating from the 18th century to a new convention center and Marriott. Just a block away, the Depot Historic District resonates with the vernacular of its heyday (from the 1880s to the 1950s) as a commercial railroad hub. The four blocks of low-rise brick warehouses, factories, and depots appear to be frozen in time. But stretching out among them, the bold, cantilevered canopy of Raleigh's Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) serves as a vivid affirmation that the neighborhood is moving forward.

A non-collecting museum, CAM Raleigh showcases the work of emerging artists. It is affiliated with North Carolina State University, and hosts educational programs for community schools. So while this museum did not require special climate-control systems, the directors did ask the architects to include space for a learning center and for special events. They also wanted the architecture to echo CAM's innovative agenda.

Designed by the Los Angeles–based Brooks + Scarpa, the recently completed CAM is already an icon in the area, which feels a lot like New York City's SoHo in the 1970s. Extant businesses stand alongside a growing number of galleries, design studios, shops, and watering holes in restored spaces, with some thoughtful mixed-use developments at the periphery of the neighborhood. The city is also building a new light-rail terminal here that will guarantee commuter traffic. Design principal Lawrence Scarpa, whose firm had a small office in Charlotte at one time, picked up on this vibe and developed a scheme that exploits the 21,000-square-foot structure's “good bones.”

The two-story masonry warehouse was built for a blacksmith in 1910, then enlarged slightly by Brogden Produce 15 years later. When CAM purchased the property in 1997, its northern elevation was completely covered with metal panels. Scarpa stripped the facade, restoring the brick and glazing the three bays underneath. Then he cleared the interior, leaving the original steel and masonry intact, and integrating mechanicals and insulation so that the place feels like it might have when it was built. In the first of two significant moves, Scarpa sliced through the thick concrete floor, where a large coal chute once divided the slightly raised main volume from the 1925 street-level addition. This allows a new basement gallery to connect with two open, split-level galleries above, via a steel mesh bridge and stairs. A ramp and new elevator (configured within the old cage) provide universal access to the sub-grade gallery, office, and art preparation room.

In a grand gesture, meant to be as much art as functional device, Scarpa added a 900-square-foot glazed entrance pavilion along the east elevation, creating a sculpture garden out front. Taking his cues from the loading dock it was replacing, he played with the shed roof in plan, folding it into an origami-like plane that dips and sails out from the building and flows into the lobby as a ceiling, for a fluid transition from outdoor to indoor space.

This ethereal tour de force is made of steel beams, painted pale blue to mimic a Southern porch ceiling. The beams support a sheer polycarbonate roof on top and an aluminum insect mesh lined with a whimsical array of powder-coated petals underneath.

“The idea is that you have a building from a period that is heavy and permanent,” says Scarpa. “The [canopy] is light and floating, so there is tension between the two—one representing today and the other yesterday.”

Cost: $3,400,000

Completion date: December 2010

Gross square feet: 22,300


BROOKS SCARPA (Design Architect)
4611 W. Slauson Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90043
F: 310-828-453-9606

CLEARSCAPES (Architect of Record)
311-200 West Martin Street
Raleigh, NC 27601
F: 919-821-0804

November 2011
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