Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Power of Contrast

Greensboro Station Main Hall
While in Greensboro, North Carolina a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the building that has served as the entrance to the city for train passengers since 1927. I am very glad that I did this because the last time I saw the station – in 1974 – it was not looking very well. I have memories of a dingy and none-to-well cared for building that in spite of neglect still somehow managed to hang on to a shred of its neo-classical dignity. I just assumed that the ensuing years had seen the building razed in favor of a parking lot; such was the fate for most buildings of that type. In retrospect, it was an odd fate when you consider that all these buildings were razed and parking lots constructed at a time when demand for downtown parking was in serious decline. But that was the 1970s were nothing if not a series of contradictions.

Be that as it may – I was delighted to see that the former Southern Railway Station was not only still standing but had evidently enjoyed a great deal of attention during the ensuing years. Shortly after my visit in 1974, Southern Railway gave the station to the City of Greensboro. The North Carolina Department of Transportation later got involved and what we now have is a beautifully restored facility that serves its original purpose beautifully and is presented as the J. Douglas Gaylon Depot.
The lobby of the restored Greensboro station is bright and light filled. About ninety percent of the interior is in lighter tones such as the terrazzo floor and plaster walls with polished stone embellishments. The remaining ten percent consists of dark stained oak wood that has been well restored.

Benches and Booths in Dark Oak
 This dark oak serves two purposes: the bench seating is constructed of oak with a dark finish. And the wood trim that is inset to serve as entrances, wall mounted timetables, the ticket counters – all of these are made of oak finished with a dark stain. The effect is both pleasing and tasteful – and it provides a wonderful example of an effective use of contrast.
Some designers avoid strong contrasts in favor of aligning a range of closely related values with a goal of creating serenity. Others introduce several sharp contrasts into a space, which is politely referred to as giving animation to a space – but really it is just jarring. The main hall of the Greensboro train station shows a use of contrast that is very nearly perfect. This is to be expected because, after all, they don’t call it neo-classical for nothing. The first thing to observe is this proportion: eighty to ninety percent lighter offset with twenty to ten percent contrast. The next thing that makes this successful is the choice of material: oak with a dark stain. This same effect could have been achieved with dark marble or dark paint. But a relief from the hard surfaces is achieved through the introduction of oak wood that adds warmth to what could have quickly been a visually cold – albeit attractive – space. In this particular instance, the architects chose against using ornate millwork the grain of the wood becomes the outstanding feature. Prominent pieces such as the train announcement board or the protrusion over the telephone booths make do with some simple and traditional oak crown molding as their only embellishment, which shows wonderful restraint.

The only problem with the beautifully restored Greensboro train station is that it makes you wonder why new airports can be designed to create a “gateway to the city” effect.

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