Raleigh’s packing some bigger buildings lately, but as far as City Councilor Thomas Crowder is concerned, not enough “better” ones that add what they should to the city’s fabric.

Crowder, an architect and owner of the firm ARCHITEKTUR, is an outspoken believer that Raleigh should raise its planning and design sights and stop settling for “good enough”or worsewhen it comes to major development projects, public and private. For the last seven years, his running commentary on the hits and misses of Raleigh’s growth has endeared him to many neighborhood leaders but not, however, to most developers.

The latest addition to his “hits” list: the new Raleigh Convention Center, with its Shimmer Wall and much of its mass put underground; but he considers the new convention-center hotel, a Marriott, to be a design “miss” with its heavy dose of synthetic stucco. “Which could be in any suburban location in anytown USA,” he sniffs.

“The built environment of a city,” Crowder argues, “impacts us all, physically, financially and emotionally. It can protect, or threaten, our life, safety and welfare.” Raleigh’s leaders recently adopted a mission statement, he notes, committing to be “a 21st Century City of Innovation focusing on environmental, cultural and economic stability”language Crowder himself initiated.

Ironically, he thinks Raleigh was truer to those standards earlier in its history, when it was small and poor, than it is today. Buildings like the state Capitol, Memorial Auditorium (including its wings), Dorton Arena and the Capital Bank building (333 Fayetteville St.) reflect Raleigh’s earlier purposefulness and are “simple, classic, but not ostentatious,” he says.

On the other hand, Raleigh’s high-rise designs, starting with the eye-numbing BB&T tower and the gaudy Wachovia building, both on Fayetteville Street, are generally unoriginal “corporate knockoffs,” Crowder declares. They overpower their neighbors (and their own sites) and end up detracting from, rather than enhancing, the surrounding streetscape.

His bottom line: For all the money being invested downtown (about $3 billion in this decade), Raleigh’s isn’t becoming as “walkable and livable” as it should.

For his efforts, Crowder’s been dismissed as an aesthete and saluted as a visionary. But he’s rarely ignored.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You prefer Raleigh’s early architecture. Why?

THOMAS CROWDER: [It] was a reflection of its people: simple and hard working, yet strong, proud and intelligent. As in our state motto, which is “To be, rather than to seem.” Our early buildings responded to the harsh climate and modest economic conditions prevalent throughout the South. They were designed with rooms, doors and tall double-hung windows all strategically positioned to encourage cross-ventilation. Front porches and screened porches were a must for socializing and keeping cool in the summer. Oaks dominated the landscape for shade and cool breezes. Local materials were used for construction such as timber, stone and brick. Our urban form was walkablelook at the original [William] Christmas plan for the city from 1798. We were sustainable due to necessity, meaning for survival.

Give us some examples.

The State Capitol building. It’s one of our first crown jewels, constructed in Greek Revival style, but there’s nothing ostentatious about itit’s simple and elegant, yet iconic. Using the vocabulary of Greek architecture, it pays homage to the founding principles of modern democracy. Materials were local, such as the stone cut from a nearby quarry. Today, [it’s] considered one of the nation’s finest and best-preserved examples of 19th-century craftsmanship.

Any other, more prosaic buildings?

Most of the buildings of our past, like the Heilig-Levine building, Raleigh Times building and Pine State Creamery, were very straightforward and utilitarian. Fortunately … they were spared the wrecking ball and landfill, and they continue to live productive lives today.

The Raleigh Times building, for example, is an excellent testament of adaptive re-use, preserving an important piece of history while the interior serves a new purpose. What impresses me the most about [it] is that the owner is using its unique history to draw customers into one of Raleigh’s hottest new watering holes. Our citizenry and visitors want authenticity, not anywhere USA.

The Heilig-Levine building is another great example of preservation and adaptive re-use. It’s one of the country’s first Platinum LEED Certified interior projects, which is the highest level of energy and environmental sustainability recognized by the U.S. Green Building Counciland, I might also add, not easily achieved. The first floor is reserved for restaurants and active uses. And who better to be the major tenant on the upper floors than one of the leading sustainability developers in the country, Cherokee Investments.

Also, The Creamery: This was a pioneer in the revitalization of Glenwood South and, for that matter, downtown. The developer and architects took an industrial complex that originally housed one of the state’s largest creameries and created one of the first and highly successful mixed-use re-use projects in the city.

I find it interesting that these three buildings are where the most people congregate downtown. All three nod to our genuine heritage of North Carolina crafts, brick making and, metaphorically, to be, rather than to seem.

For all of that, Raleigh got swept up by the modernist style, and you were too, yes?

Up until World War II, North Carolina was an agrarian and textile state. Then in the mid-20th century, visionaries like Governors Luther Hodges, Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt focused on education, technology and innovation. And this was also reflected in our architecture. Raleigh and the College of Design at N.C. State University, in particular, embraced the international school of [design] promoted by Walter Gropius and Mies van de Rohe. The founding dean of the design college, Henry Kamphoefner, brought internationally renowned architects and designers to his faculty, and such guest lecturers as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. We were a hotbed of modernist design, where form followed function. [With] Chicago, Los Angeles and New Canaan, Conn., Raleigh lays claim to more mid-20th century modernist homes than any other city in the U.S. due to Kamphoefner’s leadership and influence. Many of the office buildings in Cameron Village also followed his lead, but unfortunately only a handful hang on today awaiting the landfill.

Your favorites from the modernist era?

Dorton Arena at the State Fairgrounds is my favorite example. Inspired by the Roman Coliseum, Matthew Nowicki, who at the time was head of the architecture department in design school, created what was then and continues to be a modern icon. It has no columns inside to block the spectators’ views. Two opposing parabolic aches carry a tensile roof structure, which was the first of its kind in the country.

Another is 333 Fayetteville St., originally the Branch Bank building and now Capital Bank. It’s another that’s a mid-century modern masterpiece. Its clean and modern interpretation of classical building order gives us a clearly defined base, middle and top. Simple and functional, yet very elegant. Aesthetically, it is our best modern office tower downtown to date. The downside is, its lack of operable windows and other energy-efficient amenities.

When do you think things started to go wrong?

In the ’50s and ’60s, our architecture continued to somewhat reflect our roots, together with the progressive influences of post-war prosperity. [But] the ’70s brought the energy crisis, double-digit inflation and, with a few exceptions, the worst architecture in the state’s history. I remember Dean Kamphoefner accurately criticizing the N.C. State Faculty Club … as looking like a Highway Patrol station, and the Hillsborough Place building for its inefficient design and insensitivity to the street.

[With] the growth boom beginning in the late ’70s and into the ’80s and ’90s, historic influences gave way further to perceived progress. Raleigh served up to newcomers the large-lot subdivisions they wanted, the air-conditioned, mass-production homes, office parks and strip-shopping centers far away from our central city, only accessible by massive thoroughfares and the car. Since then we’ve continued to consume our natural resourcesland, water and energyfaster than is environmentally and economically sustainable.

It’s ironic. Our early architecture and land planning was about honest responses to our climate and natural environment by simple, hardworking folks. Yet upon becoming a highly educated society, our architecture and urban planning became less than smart.

As sprawl marched forward, failed attempts at [downtown] urban renewal included turning Fayetteville Street into a pedestrian mall and plopping a windowless box, the Civic Center, in the middle. Unfortunately, there were no pedestrians after 5 p.m. or on weekends. The Civic Center wasn’t large enough to be competitive, and there was no real room for expansion, not to mention it obstructed two elegant bookends on each end of its classical axisthe Capitol and Memorial Auditorium. Besides which, it was just God-awful ugly.

Then came the first high-rises. You’re not a fan?

…I remember Claude McKinney, at the time dean of the design school, gallantly and rightly speaking out, but to no avail, against the approval of the First Union Tower, now the Wachovia building, because it would cast a shadow on the Capitol and the surrounding open space of Union Square, from now till eternity. As for its architecture … I find the granite panels visually suspended in glass a further insult to our intellect. Even a layperson would think, What absurdity, glass holding up granite?

And the effect of the high-rises on the street below?

Rather than focusing on revitalizing existing structuressuch as [was done later] with the Raleigh Times and Heilig-Levineall the occupancy capacity was sucked up 20-plus stories in the air. A lot of smaller buildings were emptied out and torn down.

Not to mention that this was the beginning of corporate clichés and architectural fads, which unfortunately continues today. Rather than honest responses to climate, context, human scale, activity on the street, sustainability and what we should inspire to be as a society, buildings were being created from a kit-of-parts out of their architects’ toolboxes in the name of efficient and cost-effective production. Ultimately, our cityscape pays the price.

Which is pretty much your critique of the new Marriott?

[It] could be in any suburban location in Anytown, USA. Speaking of architectural clichés, the eyebrow atop the east façade appears to offer no purpose, which I might add is showing up on a number of recent buildings downtown. If the point is a sun-shading devise, it should be on the south side of the building. Beyond that, in exchange for the city’s investment of $20 million, we were supposed to receive an urban masterpiece constructed of wood, steel, stone and glass [as described in the developer’s initial pitch for the project]. Well, you know the story; there’s a lot of synthetic stucco on it instead. And to add insult to injury, if you want to go to the Convention Center from inside the hotel, guess what? [The hotel has] no doors on Salisbury Street.

Take us through some of the other downtown buildings that you think are sub-par.

The Sheraton [is] another unfortunate example of the city caving in. The developers’ original renderings showed a much different building, but what was built was stripped-down, and it’s evident. We elected officials have got to get over this inferiority complex. Are we not consistently touted as one of the best places to live in the country?

The RBC Tower: It has active uses on the street level, which complies with our Urban Design Guidelines. That’s good. But it doesn’t step back on the upper floors, which is claustrophobic on the street. The Mecca Restaurant and the north side of Martin Street is now in eternal shade. [Whereas], if the building stepped back, it would’ve allowed for more articulation and more air and light to get through. Also, there’s no reason the second, third, and fourth floors couldn’t engage with the street too, instead of just the first floor. But above the retail level, the next several floors are a parking deck sheathed in reflective glass. According to the real-estate market, people want to live on the upper floors and they claim the highest price tags. I understand that, but is not this an opportunity to include affordable units at the lower levels, wrapping the deck and putting more eyes on the street for safety’s sake?

[On the design], the tower is a stark glass shaft sitting on a pre-cast base of postmodernism language, appearing schizophrenic. As for the lit-up Christmas tree crown on top, you decide.

222 Glenwood [a new mixed-used condo project in Glenwood South]: The balconies encroach so much into the public realm they overwhelm the sidewalkin fact, it overwhelms the street. Also, this building is on a rail-transit route. Will our transit corridors see only the derrieres of our buildings and their parking decks? If not our best side, should not building façades facing our transit lines at least extend a welcoming view?

And the ones downtown that you think came out well?

The additions to the Progress Energy Center: I like the modernist vocabulary that was used to pay homage to Memorial Auditorium’s front façade. Here you have an elegantly minimalist and understated vocabulary using a well-detailed glass wall system [that lets] the Greek revival architecture of Memorial Auditorium take center stage. Furthermore, it’s transparent, allowing activity in the pre-function spaces in front of the Fletcher theater and Meymandi hall to be viewed from the street and from Lichtin Plaza. An earlier design tried to use the same classical language [of Memorial] for the wings, but it overpowered the center. Thankfully, the architects and the city were patient and took the time to get it right!

And the new Convention Center: This project could have been a disaster. Early on there were many folks lobbying for the entire center to be above ground. Had it not been for the architects and some city councilors and county commissioners, Raleigh could have ended up with another windowless box spanning two city blocks. Picture an aircraft carrier set down in the middle of Raleigh. Instead, the massive convention floor was sunk underground. This not only allowed for a more sensitive scale and massing on one city block, it allowed the facility to be more energy-efficient, insulated from extreme temperatures aboveground. [This] allowed the architects to create a Silver LEED Certified facility using native materials and metaphors. It’s no Dorton Arena, or Sydney Opera House, but it does represent our city well and accurately reflects a reserved elegance…

The Quorum: The new brick tower [on West Jones Street] is one of the best new high-rises. Not glitzy. It is clean, well-articulated and timelessno trendy façades here. The only criticism I have for this building is the street level. Housing a meeting facility, credit union kiosk and parking deck, there is little to engage with the pedestrian. At least the owner has allowed for future retail to take some of the space occupied by the current parking deck. Otherwise, thumbs up!

You’re outspoken on these issues, but I know it’s not always a comfortable feeling being a critic when you’re also rooting for Raleigh to grow and be successful.

When [you asked me to critique] Raleigh architecture, I was somewhat hesitant. I asked, Why should I take on this chore? Why does The News & Observer not have an architectural critic any more who could do this? Why doesn’t the Independent have one? But on reflection, the architecture we build today will be a testament to Raleigh’s current society, now and into the distant future. We have highly educated, caring, creative and innovative people living here. Our architecture and urban form should reflect what is the best in us and what is best to come. I see citizens every day working hard to preserve what is great in Raleigh and create new, innovative ways to make our city a better place to live. So I think it’s incumbent on us all to do our part to make Raleigh a model city for the 21st century.

And to be inspired again by our state motto: “To be, rather than to seem.”