As I stroll through Glenwood Avenue in my adopted hometown of Raleigh, I realize that there are about five decades of history in a several-block radius. Like many healthy historical downtowns, there is a mix of old, new, and anticipatory. Let’s take a walk down the street.
Walker’s Drugs looks like it was built in the 1930s; it remains a functioning drug store, with architecture intact. Beside it is NoFos, a trendy restaurant converted from a Piggly-Wiggly grocery store from the 1940s. Inside, classic meets contemporary in the trim-carpeted floor and art nouveau lighting that itself hearkens back to a bygone year, reimagined in Fifth Element-like cyberpunk yearning. Beside this is a bank. Wachovia. All banks, unless they try really hard, seem stuck in the 1970s—all brick and beige. (As an aside, my time in the Bahamas last October for a conference were like being in an alternate-reality 1980s. The hotels, the fonts used on signs—everything was 80s! It was surreal.)
Moving down the street a little bit, there are a series of building that look as though they were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. They retain much of their charm and are now cafés, dessert parlors, or clubs. The gym where I work out, Peak Fitness, looks like the 1990s, in the best aesthetic sense (at least according to my palate), all industrial with pipes and wires showing in the roof and concrete floors. Now if only they’d play more ‘90s music. There are condos going up in three places across Glenwood, no doubt drawing from the urban chic that already emanates from this street, and hopefully adding something of a forward-looking element.
But what? Why is it that what we find most pleasing in architecture is rarely right now? Quite possibly it is because we live in a tumultuous time nationally and globally, and the same cultural impetus that gives rise to an increased appetite for fantasy fare in entertainment propels us to want to transport us to another time in our buildings. As the disconnect between our nation’s actions and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves increases, cynicism will increase as well as our desire to “escape” right now. Just as art in this era is largely derivative—whether satirical or in homage—so is our architecture. Positive, credible images of future in every quadrant of the human endeavor could go a long way toward redeeming our cultural milieu. Hopefully we’ll be able to be progressives and conservatives simultaneously, transcending our pasts but including them. Even in our buildings.