Yesterday, I stopped by Raleigh's Dorton Arena. Here's another look at its storied past.
Architect Matthew Nowicki was just forty years old when he perished in a tragic plane crash on August 31, 1950. Just three years before, Nowicki came to the United States as a technical advisor to the Polish Embassy, later representing his native country in the design process for the United Nations building. Nowicki, who had secretly taught architecture and planning classes during the Nazi occupation, practiced a kind of regionalized modernism, injecting a more humanist approach into Modern architecture's detached rationality. In 1948, at the recommendation of critic Lewis Mumford (who had met the young architect in New York), Nowicki accepted a position at North Carolina State University (NCSU) to head the school's storied department of architecture.
Despite his short career, Nowicki forged a remarkable architectural legacy, leaving behind designs that were both technically innovative and aesthetically engaging. Prior to his death, Nowicki paired with Massachusetts architect Albert Mayer to lead one of the largest and most important international projects of its time- the plan for Chandigarh, the new capital city of India's Punjab state. Establishing the overall plan and palette for the modern city, Nowicki laid the foundation for what would become one of Le Corbusier's crowning achievements, an interesting footnote to one of Modern architecture's most significant narratives.
Opened in 1952, Raleigh's Dorton Arena is a midcentury marvel, a symbol of the city's architectural golden age and an extraordinary feat of engineering. Originally constructed as a livestock-judging pavilion and capable of holding more than 7,000 spectators, the elliptical structure is composed of two reinforced concrete parabolic arches covered by a saddle-shaped dome. With a 300-foot span and no interior columns, the structure embraces its jaw-dropping transparency, capitalizing on a complex system of steel tension cables and non-load-bearing glazed walls. Its form echoed again and again during the following decades (see Kenzo Tange's Olympic Hall in Tokyo or Eero Saarinen's Ingalls Rink at Yale), the daring pavilion changed the course of architecture, setting the standard for a new generation of domed structures. A unique public space defined by openness and optimism, the Dorton Arena is an icon of American modernity.
Matthew Nowicki never saw the completion of Dorton Arena (contemporary William H. Deitrick used Nowicki's original drawings to finish the structure), but the building's pioneering form and audacious aesthetic garnered immediate international acclaim (in fact a number of architects visited the project during its construction, including Mies and Pietro Belluschi). Still in use after more than six decades, the building continues to host sporting events, concerts, even high school graduations, its functional flexibility a testament to the ingenuity of Nowicki's sweeping, ambitious design. Formally innovative, spatially dynamic, and technically groundbreaking, Dorton Arena stands as more than just a mid-twentieth-century "cow palace." It is a symbol of unlimited technological potential and an emblem of America's brazenly modern spirit.
The arena is open regularly for public events. It is located at 1026 Blue Ridge Road in the state fairgrounds complex.
Image at top:
Dorton Arena Construction/State Fairgrounds. James L. Brandt Papers, 1948-2012 (MC00472), Special Collections Research Center at NCSU Libraries.
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