The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Building of the month

November 2008 - Dorton Arena, Raleigh, North Carolina

Maciej Nowicki, by Andrew Saint

Raleigh, North Carolina, is not a prime destination for the architectural globetrotter. Yet it was there at the cumbrously named State Fair Livestock Judging Pavilion, aka the Dorton Arena, aka the ‘Cow Palace’, that the wide-span roof now familiar from mega-conference halls and stadia the world over first took on a spirit of drama and adventure.

The Dorton story is a tragi-comic one.  It starts with the heroic figure of Maciej or Matthew Nowicki (1910–50), a Polish architect of the highest artistic, technical and human attainments.  Son of the leader of Poland’s Agrarian Party, Nowicki showed brilliance as a young architect-planner.  But his promising career was shattered by the Second World War and its aftermath.  He took part in the Warsaw uprising, and longed for a big role in his country’s post-war reconstruction.  In 1947 he was nominated Poland’s representative for the United Nations’ buildings in New York, contributing much to the formative stage of that project.

Then the Communists took over in Poland, and Nowicki elected not to return home.   He had impressed everyone – Lewis Mumford and Eero Saarinen in particular – and it seemed only time before his American career took off.  Nowicki and Saarinen worked together briefly on a scheme for Brandeis University. Saarinen’s interest in dramatic roofs seems to have been stimulated by the Pole, who had sketched out a scheme for a great circular parliament building for Warsaw with a suspended roof.  Soon however Mumford found Nowicki a job as professor at the obscure State College of Design in Raleigh.  There he teamed up with J. S. Dorton, go-ahead director of North Carolina’s state fair, to rework the Warsaw project as a cattle-judging pavilion – the ‘Cow Palace’.

Sketches of Nowicki’s original design give a taste of its freshness and humanity.  They depict low-slung catenary arches set in contrary directions as in a tug of war, intersecting near the foot and acting as edge-beams for a saddle-shaped roof in between.  The sides are shown as open, with surroundings more like a Roman forum than the insuppressible American parking lot.   To take this forward Nowicki consulted Fred Severud, engineer for Saarinen’s St Louis arch.  He may have hoped for a stressed skin or membrane roof, revolutionary at that scale in 1949, but was dissuaded out of it in favour of a cable-hung structure, hardly more familiar.

Then disaster struck.  Nowicki had secured the job of designing Chandigarh along with Albert Mayer, but was killed in an air crash in August 1950 on his way home from India.  Severud and local architect William H. Deitrick were left to sort out the Dorton structure and build it in 1952–3.   The upshot was unhappy.  The budget was always short.  Modifications to the purity of Nowicki’s sketch included guyropes and extra supports beneath the arches around the perimeter, which was closed in with ugly glazing.  Despite these additional structural measures, the roof deflected wildly in high winds; Hurricane Hazel in 1954 was said to have produced alarming 14” waves. Worse were the indescribably dreadful acoustics, producing echoes of up to 23 seconds.  To cure that, it was later proposed to hang 13,000 Confederate flags from the roof.

Since cattle-judging left the Dorton Arena in 1975, it has been used for various events.  The modifications then made revealed no less than 32 bullet-holes in the old glazing.  But if the Cow Pavilion turned out raw, its pioneering structure has had a profound impact on the work of Frei Otto, Eero Saarinen and the whole progeny of great roofs ever since.  Raleigh is worth the pilgrimage.

Andrew Saint is General Editor of the Survey of London. His latest book is Architect and Engineer (Yale, 2008).

Building of the month archive

Look for past Buildings of the Month by entering the name of an individual building or architect or browsing the drop down list.

  • Search

  • Or