Monday, September 10, 2012

The Idea Factory - 2 architects nurture artists in a NoDa salon

The Charlotte Observer published a stunning article on the fun we have had at Dialect. Have a read (By Miriam Durkin, Posted: Friday, Sep. 07, 2012)

>> If you are curious enough, on the second Friday evening of every month you can enter a door in the heart of NoDa. Climb the stairs, round the corner and step inside a large room. Your fee is a bottle of wine.

You are in the workspace of Dialect Design architects Toby Witte and Jahan Nourbakhsh. But their work table is pushed aside. Around you people mingle, ponder paintings, or listen to saxophones or to a poetry reading. All are there because the architects want visitors to encounter and debate modern art.

They call it Dialect Night.

This Friday’s Dialect Night will feature Becca Bellamy’s paintings of urban structures, such as bridges or parking garages. Bellamy might be asked to explain or even defend her work, but if all goes as planned – and the Dialect guys have been doing this since 2003 – everyone grows.

Witte and Nourbakhsh say they do this for selfish reasons; the ideas expressed enrich their work. “When you enter architecture, the whole world tells you not to be an artist,” says Witte. “But we said, ‘What are you talking about? We need to have art around.’ ”

The more provocative the better. On one Dialect Night, visitors viewed paintings of Y. Pat Chou. Then they were led in meditation, then viewed the work again, to discuss if their perceptions had changed.

On another Dialect Night, writer Jeff Jackson read from his coming-of-age novel, which he calls “dreamlike and hallucinatory.” The reading was paired with artwork inspired by chapters.

And on another, Laura McCarthy draped yards of burlap throughout the space, creating zones through which visitors had to navigate.

Witte and Nourbakhsh don’t worry that viewers might not like the art. (Nor do they take a commission if the artwork sells.) They just want to give artists a chance to test their work. Last fall, the architects featured newcomer photographer Christina Welsh, who wanted to present images of free-standing chimneys left behind by fires. Witte and Nourbakhsh suggested she extend the concept, so Welsh framed the photos in old wood from the chimney sites. To Welsh’s delight, three works sold.

Autobiography of an idea

Witte and Nourbakhsh began Dialect to create green, modern buildings in what they saw as a city overwhelmed by traditional or purely functional forms.

“It’s sad to see that in a landscape where art should be foremost. It should feed my soul just driving by it,” Nourbakhsh says.

Their structures might include concrete floors, curved walls or exposed steel trusses. You might see curved metal roofs, sliding interior panels or flowing water.

On a home addition in Matthews, they created an outdoor colonnade of steel “L” beams (imagine them upside down, in a row), then topped it with perforated aluminum panels that create dappled light patterns below. They played with the patterns even as the panels were installed, finishing the design onsite.

On another project, Witte and Nourbakhsh discovered cracks on a garage floor. They could have removed the slab, but they filled the cracks with red epoxy, creating an abstract artwork.

“When you trust an artist, they are able to do their most creative work,” Nourbakhsh says. “When someone else closely guards the creative process, they really don’t get the best of us.”

UNCC to Concord to NoDa

Nourbakhsh and Witte aren’t the only contemporary architects in Charlotte, but their open-door attitude toward emerging artists sets them apart. So do their backgrounds.

Nourbakhsh grew up in Tehran, Iran, and recalls childhood summers building sand houses on the Caspian Sea shore. They weren’t castles; he imagined contemporary rooms cantilevered over pools. At 16, he left Iran for his final year of high school in Ohio, then studied electrical engineering and began work in that field.

Witte grew up near Hamburg, Germany. He recalls wandering in woods, using tree limbs to create imaginative passageways. Witte also came to the States for high school, then returned to Germany for military service, a draftsman apprenticeship and construction work. He came to the United States to marry his high school sweetheart.

Both found their careers stifling, and in 1998 became friends at UNC Charlotte’s School of Architecture. Between classes, they met under an oak tree to share dreams, Witte says, of “turning the architecture world inside out.”

Their passionate discussions often began, “Why not …” Why not start with spaces that are completely dark, where only sound carries you through the space? Why not use concrete in place of drywall? Why not use flooring on the ceiling?

By graduation they had opened an office in Concord in the second floor of an old hardware store. Rent was $1 a year, but it had no heat, which was rough on clients.

By year two, they had moved into a bookstore above a tavern and conceived of Dialect Night.

Their idea was to show films. The first was “Italianamerican,” a Martin Scorsese documentary about his parents. Another was “How to Draw a Bunny,” a dark documentary centered on the suicide of pop-artist Ray Johnson. A third was “The Last Supper,” about liberals who invite conservatives to dinner and eat them.

“That didn’t go over well,” says Witte.

“We felt totally at odds with the culture,” says Nourbakhsh. In 2006 they moved to Charlotte’s NoDa in an upstairs space just around the corner from The Smelly Cat coffee shop.

They hung cable lights and built a work table.

They also began to reach out to artists. They took space behind their office to provide studios for five visual artists. They opened their space to jazz musician Brent Bagwell, who holds musical events, bringing in outsiders such as a Japanese gong player or Brazilian percussionist.

Earlier this year when writer Jackson was looking for ways to market his novel, the architects hosted a group to brainstorm.

They invited artist John W. Love Jr. to lead meditation sessions. Love also brainstorms with the architects about his interdisciplinary artwork, which spans writing, performing and visual projects. “The Dialect guys are the only people I trust enough to lay an undeveloped idea on the table,” says Love.

Getting attention

Nourbakhsh, a single father of a young son and two grown children, lives near uptown in a house where he has filled the yard with pebbles. Inside, the ceilings are painted black and the chimney is exposed.

Witte, married with three young daughters, says the most artistic part of his home now is the drawings his daughters make. He still lives in Concord, in a 1930s house where he is converting a guest house into a master bedroom.

Both joke that, architecturally, they “can’t afford themselves.” So they continue to explore ways to get the public’s attention.

In July, to promote their new website,, they engaged musicians and videographers to stage a surprise musical event at The Square in uptown Charlotte. At exactly 12:30 p.m. July 11, a cellist, covered head-to-toe in a purple suit, unfolded his chair and began to play. From other directions came a tambourine player, accordion player, drummer and clarinetist. Once together, they merged their discordant sounds into one tune as people stopped to listen.

But are they making a difference?

Yes, says Jackson, who now has an agent for his novel. “There are a lot of art venues in town where when you break the mold, they get nervous. At Dialect when you break the mold, they get excited.”

For Witte, there is no other choice. “If this is the only way I know how to walk,” he says, “there must be a street for me to walk on.”. <<

Here is the link to the full article at the Observer:

No comments:

Post a Comment