Prospect and Refuge

Like a lot of people in Raleigh, I said goodbye to Sadlack’s this week.

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I said goodbye a few times, actually.  On a random day last week it hit me out of nowhere that I absolutely, positively, right that minute, needed to have one last California Club.  It was only missing my friend Virginia, who always used to split those with me when we were working long hours at our desks across the street at the College of Design.  Sometimes we’d take turns running over to pick it up.  Sometimes we’d walk over together, swinging a wide loop past Global Village on the way to fuel up on coffee.  Sometimes, on rare occasions when nothing on our desks was on fire, we’d sit outside and eat for a minute. A stolen minute.

Sadlack’s closed for good on New Year’s Eve, and there was a band playing, and I wanted to be there for at least a little of that. Julia and I dropped off a car on the way to the evening’s events, and we had a cheap beer in a plastic cup before we went to dinner.  The crowd was full of people we’d seen onstage, people we know from hanging out on Raleigh patios and sidewalks, people we’d seen behind the counter, and people who need to feature prominently in someone’s novel.  It’s always been the kind of place where you’d see anybody.  Professors, drifters, college kids, downtowners on lunch break, hipsters, oldsters, and once, I swear, I shared a table with a zombie. Julia and I went though a litany of Sadlack’s memories over beers, while we read the scribbles on the walls which are about to come down.  Favorite shows, favorite bizarre conversations, favorite characters, favorite near-misses, favorite rainstorms. The time I got serenaded by a very nice crazy man who wanted to sing me a whoooooole ballad, line by line while I tried to pay my tab. The time Dawg ate a piece of gum off of the sidewalk, winning the all-time Grossest Thing championship.

Three of us peeled away from a nearby house party around eleven, just to stroll by one last time and hear a song or two.  The Backsliders were playing, and there were bunches of collards hanging from the ceiling.  The crowd was deep.  I never attempted to make it off the sidewalk, where I stood in a pile of PBR cans and leaned on a telephone pole while Julia and Willow wrestled their way into the bar.

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And then it was over.  The music fizzled out around 11:15, and the crowd thinned, some, and we left all the handsome cowboys and drifters and music fans and professors and a little bit of everything else in Raleigh milling around the sidewalk.

I wasn’t, like, a Sadlack’s regular.  Not a weekly, or even a monthly patio person.  But when I needed Sadlack’s, it was there- during design reviews after sleepless nights, when I just wanted to go hear music on a patio in the sunshine, when I spent a few weeks unemployed this spring and nobody judged me for having a beer at noon on a Wednesday with Dawg.  When we had exactly 100 days left of graduate school, some of us took a long lunch and had beers before studio, and I climbed on the Sadlack’s wall and took this picture of people I love to mark the occasion:

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This post isn’t really about everyone’s collective nostalgia over losing a great local hangout, though.  Buckle up. It’s about architecture and placemaking.  (Do you believe at one point I thought I was starting a blog to write about design? That did not pan out, and it is nobody’s loss.)  I went to a presentation a couple of months back about biophilic design, which is, in a nutshell, design that loves nature, and celebrates what people love about nature.  It’s kind of interesting, and it’s about more than just growing green walls or views of trees.  It’s about nature IN the space, and natural analogues, and the nature OF the space, all three. Nature in the space might be as simple as plants or fireplaces or a water feature; natural analogues might be a column which echoes a tree trunk like in an Aalto residence, or a complex fractal pattern in the tile, or something wave-like in the artwork.

The nature OF the space is the one that interested me most, though.

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The nature OF the space, even if it’s not natural, per se, has a lot to do with how we feel about being there.  In particular, biophilic spaces offer prospect, refuge, mystery, and risk or peril.

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Prospect, in architecture, is a place to stand and look out at a distant view, to watch the world go by, to watch the seasons change.  It doesn’t have to be from a great height.  Just a few steps up from the street is perfect, if it’s a pretty interesting street.  At Sadlacks, there were a few different levels, so you could pick your prospect.  You could slide right in from the parking lot at ground level, and as the sidewalk sloped down, you’d feel like you were up high sitting on the concrete wall.

Refuge is just as important.  Refuge offers you a place to sit and feel sheltered, a little bit enclosed.  The best is when you have prospect AND refuge at the same time.  Sadlack’s patio.  Sheltered under an awning and behind a concrete wall, with an atmosphere that’s just a little cave-like. It’s human nature to love that.

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Mystery? Totally.  Physically speaking, there was nowhere at Sadlack’s that you could stand and see the rest of Sadlack’s.  From the patio you couldn’t see the inside and the barstools; from the barstools you couldn’t see who was down at the low picnic tables in the sun or hanging out on the corner, and you could never ever see into the kitchen.  The thing about mystery in architecture is that it’s enticing.  You want to peek around the corner to see what you’re missing, take a few steps up and see what’s happening on the patio, stroll inside and see who’s wandered in there.  Lots of little nooks and corners and places to squeeze into a seat, with sun for those who want it and shade for those who don’t.  You want to hang around and see what’s next.

Risk or peril? Tell me Sadlack’s didn’t have that in spades, in the very best way.  In architecture, risk or peril might be something like the glass observation box at the Sears Tower, where you can walk out and feel a little giddy and terrified even though you’re perfectly safe.  A view of danger, with no actual danger.  That little thrill that reminds us all that we are still very much alive, and that it’s a great thing. Sadlack’s always had the air that, hell, a fight might break out over darts, or the seriously sketchy guy who kept asking your age had put himself in grave danger by asking you one time too many and you might have to deck him and get yourself arrested, or you’d at the very least find something dirty written on the chalkboard wall.  You couldn’t consider it a sterile environment, socially speaking, and I’ve never enjoyed sterile environments much.  That element of anything-can-happen at Sadlack’s was so great because at the heart it WAS such a safe place- safe for every type of person who wandered in to take a seat, hang out on the patio, and be welcomed, from design students on up to every other kind of Raleighite you could name.

So that’s my two cents.  I’m not opposed to hotels, or even change, as a general principal.  And the people of Sadlack’s are worthy of every word that we could write about them, but this one isn’t just about the people.  It’s that, on this important corner at the crossroads of the Bell Tower and Cameron Village and downtown Raleigh, there was a really great place holding it down. It was a place everyone could use, a public place, a gathering place, and a welcoming place.  It’ll be torn down, and than corner will be occupied by something else: something designed for a handful of people, which isn’t likely to offer much to the people who walk past it every day, and isn’t likely to be a local landmark or make a mark on Raleigh’s culture or create memories for students or offer solace to someone who needs a quiet place to rest and have a cheap beer and a good sandwich.  It might not be a blank wall, exactly, but it’s probably not going to offer prospect, and refuge, and mystery, and peril to very many people. That spot needs some charm and character and placemaking.

We’ll see what happens. There will be other adventures, other great places, other gathering spots for a cross-section of humanity.

Pouring a little libation over here as we pause to reflect, though.  Out with the old, with all the respect it’s due, and may Sadlack’s continue to prosper and nourish people in its new home.

Happy New Year, y’all.  All good things ahead.

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