Far from Charlotte, in miles and mindset

N.C. State University looked far from home when it picked the architect for its new library, named for former Gov. Jim Hunt.

A few twinges of jealousy struck me, I have to admit, during a presentation by Craig Dykers of Snøhetta, a firm founded in Oslo, Norway, in 1989.

Dykers devoted a hefty portion of his 90 minutes or so to the opera house his firm designed in its hometown that sits right on the city's waterfront.

Its plaza, rather than being hemmed in by a railing, slants right down to the water. After the plaza rises alongside the theater and meets the roof line, it then turns and covers the roof. So a visitor can start at the water and walk up and around to the promontory atop the building, where there's a commanding view of the harbor. Magnificent. People who don't care what's happening onstage go to sight-see or sunbathe.

The plaza is roomy enough to accommodate alfresco audiences for video relays from inside the theater. The indoor audiences can mingle in lobbies that are airy, spacious and free-flowing.

The building itself wasn't what set off my pangs, though, so much as what it represented. It showed what designers can come up with when they - and their employers - imagine a theater that's more than just a box. That's how Sydney created the opera house that's the city's emblem around the world.

Charlotte's mind evidently doesn't work that way. The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has almost no visual profile at all - just a glorified awning on Tryon Street, basically. The newer Knight Theater collides with the rear of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art.

The Blumenthal center was built before my time in Charlotte, so I didn't see its creation. But I was on hand during the genesis of the Knight Theater and the rest of the South Tryon cultural center. During those months and months of public meetings, the discussions had one focus: making sure that the buildings used up no more money or land than necessary. That's reasonable enough, as far as it goes. But creativity with the buildings' appearance - even as a road to saving money - didn't figure in.

It's always possible to learn, though. There no doubt are years ahead of us before Charlotte builds any more cultural facilities. That leaves time to drag more of Charlotte's leaders, especially those with sway over the arts, to presentations like the one by the architect from Oslo. Maybe their minds - and eyes - would open.