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How can Charleston grow while looking to the past and the future?

A City of Good Buildings

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Over the past two months, The New York Times ran two stories featuring our city's architecture. The most recent focused on interior designer and transplanted New Yorker Karen Baldwin's work "to transform a cinder-block house across from Hampton Park into a modernist gem." To accomplish this, Baldwin engaged Kevan Hoertdoerfer, a local architect "with a history of designing provocative contemporary structures." "Newish Charleston," published in October, followed author and architectural critic Witold Rybczynski on a tour of historic and newly constructed buildings between White Point Garden and the Crosstown Expressway. Rybczynski commented on the recent work of New York-based architect Robert A.M. Stern, as well as that of local developer George Holt whose work was featured in the author's newest book, Charleston Fancy.

Inspired by this attention from the Times, the editors of the Charleston City Paper asked several local practitioners for an introspective review of our architectural history and where it is today. What follows are thoughtful assessments from people who care deeply about Charleston.

Vince Graham - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Vince Graham

Most of us laypeople are familiar with the "traditional" versus "contemporary" debate over style. Should modern architecture be of its place or of its time? But what qualifies as "modern"? Were Vitruvius and Palladio and Robert Mills not the "modernists" of their day? In that sense, Bevan, Gould, Holt, Hoertdoerfer, Liberatos, Muldrow, Powers, and Stern are all modernists. In the bigger picture however, whether these thoughtful designers take inspiration from precedents of immortal ancient beauty, Dwell magazine, or both is less important. I believe what Rybczynski points out: The greatness of Charleston is less about the style of its individual buildings than it is about the human scale of those buildings. And it is the city's neighborhoods and streets, comprised of those human-scaled buildings, that distinguish Charleston from other cities. In other words, it is the relationship of private and public realms that makes Charleston greater than the sum of its parts.

"Not houses finely roofed, not the stones of walls well built, nor canals nor dockyards make the city, but men able to use their opportunity."
~Alcaeus of Mytilene (c. 600 B.C.)

350 years ago, a company of eight Englishmen, commonly known as the Lords Proprietors, adopted The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina as a means of governing a massive new development project along the south Atlantic coast of North America. To entice settlement, the document expressed an unprecedented level of religious tolerance for the time, even going so far as to extend opportunity to "Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion." Imperfect though it was, the Fundamental Constitutions provided a seed of opportunity. Planted the following year, 1670, the seed took root. Gradually, through good times and bad, the opportunities envisioned by the founding document were extended to people of both genders and all races. Aiming to improve life for themselves and their children, they used their opportunity to grow Charleston into the beloved place we enjoy today.

As we celebrate the 350th anniversary of Charleston's founding next year, let us be mindful of opportunity. Not just for big designers and developers from off, but for how to enable opportunity for individuals who currently occupy this place. So that they may do what their forebears did — contribute in a small way to make this beautiful place even more so.

Vince Graham is an aspiring civic artist involved in building and renovating neighborhoods.