Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle (Part 1)

Map of North Carolina research triangle / Wikipedia

In mid-April, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) hosted Leading with Landscape IV: Transforming North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the latest in TCLF’s series of conferences designed to help communities better understand how landscape architecture can yield transformational change in the public realm. Ten speakers from the Triangle and nine from elsewhere gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, to unpack the region’s history, explore its landscapes, and pose questions about the role of landscape architecture in a region reconciling tensions between growth, equity, and ecology.

Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, president of TCLF, introduced the notion that the Triangle’s landscapes represent a continuum of “cultural lifeways” — landscapes that have over time encompassed public squares and greenways, parkways, and freeways; agrarian values and modernist ideals; asphalt-dominated office parks and revitalized downtown cores.

Adriaan Geuze, ASLA, founding partner at West 8, is designing a sculpture garden for the Nasher Museum of Art on the suburban-feeling stretch of Duke University that lies between its Georgian East and Gothic West campuses. Geuze shared ideas about improving the journey from East to West, and his firm’s attempts to find inspiration in the site’s Piedmont landscape, which had been compromised by stream channelization and road construction.

Geuze joked that culverts are “America’s legacy to natural land,” and he described with humor his perception of Campus Drive, the Olmsted Brothers road that connects East and West campuses: “Everyone travels it — up and down, up and down. It’s pretty dumb. It’s not cool. The buses are noisy. And if you are a student on a bike, you are dead five times in a mile — it is very simple; you will not survive.”

Rendering of Campus Drive / West 8, via ArchDaily

Later in the day the same landscape features — the ubiquitous culvert and Duke’s Campus Drive — made it into the remarks of Alexandra Lange, Curbed’s architecture critic who grew up in Durham. For Lange, the “little wilderness” of the culvert near her family’s house was one of the most precious cultural landscapes of her childhood, as was Campus Drive, which afforded some measure of teenage independence when she was allowed to ride “the slowest, safest bus in the world.”

The distance between the remarks suggests the fertile ground on which the conference operated, seeking to make sense of a landscape continuum that can contain both definitions of a culvert — on the one hand a symbol of irresponsible design practice and an obstacle to ecological restoration, and on the other hand a vernacular feature, a site of memory and attachment capable of fostering genuine communion with nature.

Randolph Hester, FASLA, director of the Center for Ecological Democracy, is a North Carolina native and Durham resident. He described the Piedmont as “the land of the second sons,” dominated in its earliest European settlement by those who had not inherited the family plantation in Virginia and so moved south to become modest “dirt farmers,” inextricably tied to the land and characterized by “ragged edges.”

“How do we maintain that modesty as we become a place where everybody wants to be doing design?” Hester asked. “How do you get the essence when you come from the outside? And it makes me think — how do natives get the essence of a place when they take it for granted?”

The conference offered a venue for both outsiders and natives to grapple with questions of place and authenticity. The opening presentation by Birnbaum, followed by North Carolina State University faculty members Chuck Flink, FASLA, and Kofi Boone, ASLA, grounded the day’s discussions in the history and contemporary realities of the Triangle.

Flink, president of Greenways Inc., offered a sweeping view of the Triangle’s landscape spanning millennia. He traced over time the importance of local ecology in driving culture, economies, and development patterns. He reminded the audience that the Piedmont, before European settlement, was defined by a deciduous and pine forest so thick that, in the words of ecologist B. W. Wells: “One could travel for days without a good view of the sun, and at night the constellations could seldom be seen because of the interfering canopy.”

Extracting resin from a longleaf pine / North Carolina Office of Archives and History

Flink spoke to the degradation of that forest to make way for farmland, which later made way for quarter-acre subdivisions. He addressed the “myth of an aristocracy” established by European Southerners to justify the brutal, economy-building exploitation of enslaved Africans. He pointed out that a young Frederick Law Olmsted was the first to broadly expose that myth through a series of articles for the New-York Daily Times.

And he pointed to the traditional push and pull between development and ecological design in the Triangle, represented on one end by the city-approved floodplain development of Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall — which flooded the day before its opening in 1972 — and on the other end by growth since the 1970s of the city’s 115-mile, 3,800-acre riparian greenway system, which has become an international model.

Neuse River Greenway Trail / Stewart

Boone offered a crash course in regional history through a cultural lens. He described the economic engine of Research Triangle Park (RTP), a suburban office park that in the 1960s marketed its proximity — by way of forested highways — to three major research universities. RTP currently is seeking to retrofit its sprawl — to introduce an urban fabric that it sees as essential to attracting today’s top talent.

Research Triangle Park / Cisco Systems

Boone then discussed the Triangle’s history of racism in the landscape — from plantation slavery to Jim Crow segregation, and the relegation of lower-wealth, African-American communities to floodplains. He spoke about the black communities that grew out of segregation, including the financial powerhouse of Black Wall Street in Durham, and the role of Raleigh’s African-American Chavis Park in hosting the early development of peaceful protest tactics by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which itself was founded at the segregated Shaw University.

Chavis Park circa 1930s / Esther Delaney via The News & Observer

But Boone reminded the audience that the Triangle’s cultural and demographic milieu is far from black-and-white. The Latino population is the biggest driver of growth in the Triangle, and the Asian population is growing in the suburbs closest to RTP. Boone pointed to evidence of this growth in the landscape, such as the Durham Green Flea Market and the growing number of Hindu temples in suburbs like Cary and Morrisville. “They’re bringing their cultural traditions with them, but right now they’re not represented in our public landscape,” Boone said. “What could that mean in 50 years, as these communities continue to grow and build resources? What will they think of our place?”

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, professor of history at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, addressed representation in the Triangle’s public landscapes through the lens of Confederate monuments. He referred to the “physical manifestations of memory that came to clutter the landscape” in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when private activists with access to funds and political power were allowed to install their monuments on public land, creating landscapes that were “by design, permanently exclusionary.”

Durham’s Confederate monument, which made national news after it was toppled by protesters in August, 2017, was dedicated in 1924. Brundage said that when private fundraising efforts for the monument failed, Julian Carr, a Confederate veteran, tobacco executive, and white supremacist, lobbied the state to allow public funds to supplement its cost.

Durham Confederate statue / WRAL.com

That same year in Durham, on land down the road that had been donated by Carr, Trinity College rebranded itself as Duke University following a $19 million gift from James Buchanan Duke. In 1927, construction began on West Campus. A Philadelphia-based, African-American architect named Julian Abele designed the buildings. His identity was kept a secret until the 1980s, and he is rumored to have never visited the campus, as Duke and North Carolina at that time were strictly segregated. The Olmsted Brothers designed the West Campus landscape.

Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, founding principal at Reed Hilderbrand, has worked on a range of Duke campus projects during the past decade. He addressed the challenges inherent in working on historic landscapes, including how to balance principles of design integrity and timelessness with shifting social and political contexts that demand an updated approach.

Duke’s restored Abele Quad / Reed Hilderbrand

“While I would never say that it was easy for Julian Abele and the Olmsted Brothers to envision Duke’s campus from the start — it wasn’t easy; it’s never easy — we’ve seen how the narratives that drive renewal or expansion in our own time are colored by a far more democratic, more political and noisier world in which we negotiate for change; we negotiate for everything. I doubt if they had much of a committee back then, and it’s pretty unlikely that student groups were involved.” Hilderbrand characterized his firm’s approach as “building and rebuilding the negotiated campus, where many voices are heard, and where the challenge for design is to give voice to plurality without sacrificing conviction or deluding intentions.”

Mark Hough, FASLA, university landscape architect at Duke, described the full range of distinct campus landscapes across the Triangle, including RTP and Durham’s American Tobacco Campus. He described the “dignified restraint” of the 18th-century University of North Carolina, which he said maintained its site’s gently rolling topography. North Carolina State, the land-grant university, had an early pastoral plan that was quickly abandoned in the chaos of postwar growth, leading to what Hough described as charm in a lack of cohesion and in a personal winding experience through campus. Duke’s West Campus, he said, was originally planned by the Olmsted Brothers to hug the ridge. When funds dwindled, that plan was replaced by a Beaux Arts version that flattened the landscape.

North Carolina State University campus / NC State University

Hough argued campus landscapes have the potential to instill in generations of students an appreciation for aesthetics, ecology, and the designed landscape. And he argued the heart of campus landscape architecture lies in stewardship — in ethos and practice that preserve and enhance the integrity, purpose, and beauty of landscapes over time.

Presentations over the course of the day evoked the shifting cultural, political, and physical landscapes of the Triangle. Linda Jewell, FASLA, partner at Freeman and Jewell Landscape Architecture, grew up in Sanford, North Carolina; practiced in the Triangle during the 1980s; then spent most of her career in Berkeley. But for decades she has made regular trips to the Triangle to visit friends, colleagues, and family, and she shared her impressions over time.

“I get these little glimpses. It’s encouraging and discouraging. I’m very envious when I see people doing projects at Duke and projects around the area where — oh, my God — they allow people to eat on the sidewalks. Sam Reynolds and I constantly proposed letting people eat outside, and we weren’t allowed to do it. And we constantly proposed not having huge swaths of green lawn around everything, but we could not convince either the clients or the review institutions that this was a better way to go. So much progress has been made in terms of some of those things.”

But Jewell sounded a cautionary note about the Triangle’s larger landscape. She said she remembers the thick forests that used to line Interstate 40, which connects several communities throughout the Triangle and takes many people from the suburbs to RTP. Every time she comes home, she said, she sees more of the “suburban schlock” that lies behind the increasingly shallow treeline.

Interstate 40 / Regional Transportation Alliance

“It is a veil,” she said. “It is hiding all of that bad stuff that we’re doing behind the veil. Don’t forget about all of that suburban stuff we’ve built. We’ve got to do something with it.”

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

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