Don't pay too much attention to the lush portfolio of high-end second homes posted on Charleston architect Tyler Armistead Smyth's website. Yes, the pictures document where he's been, but they don't necessarily represent the new direction he set for himself when he left Christopher Rose Architects a year and a half ago and struck out on his own. Today he's building a reputation as an architect who creates beauty by solving problems, whether it's designing a rustproof metal staircase for a beach house or reviving an Uptown bungalow on a budget. "I love to work up against limits," he said during a recent interview in the Grow Food Carolina building on Morrison Drive where he shares office space. "They're fun."
Work, work, work. The 39-year-old Smyth moved to the Lowcountry when he was 12, grew up on Kiawah in the 1980s and graduated from Porter-Gaud School. With a stepfather in the development business, Smyth worked construction jobs in the summers, but he didn't immediately seek a career in the building trades. After earning a degree in biology from Vanderbilt, he returned to South Carolina and took a job monitoring shrimp farms for the Department of Natural Resources. But the work proved "too easy," he says. "I found myself getting lazy." In 2003 Smyth earned his master's degree in architecture from Clemson (where he met his architect wife, Michelle) and took a job in Charleston. "I think I'm building a client base because I come through. If you're not big on service, you're not going to make it."
Style via substance. Back in the 20th century, architects tended to align themselves with one school of thought or another, a system that produced majestic egos, bold manifestos, and lots of fashionably awful buildings. Smyth pledges allegiance to no movement. "I'm glad to not have a style that I ascribe to. I really believe that you're selling yourself short and selling the client short if you try to impose any kind of a style. I just think that through the research and really looking at a site and really working with clients, you get in deep and come up with the right answer."
Body of work. After spending an internship designing big projects with a big team for a big firm, Smyth understood that he'd have to carve out a different path. He proved himself by designing showcase getaways for wealthy clients at Chris Rose, but since moving out on his own, Smyth's career has featured a series of interesting choices, mixing high-end resort work with urban spec-builds and Uptown rehabs. He rejects projects that would overwhelm the scale of the surrounding neighborhood, but enjoys coming up with smart, subtle features that make his projects pop. "I'm interested in carefully detailed environments. Thoroughly wrought environments. It doesn't have to be lavish. In fact most of the time I'd rather it be very carefully, very minimally created spaces, which is harder than people give it credit for."
The Charleston dilemma. Charleston is a city that loves architecture. Or at least really old architecture. "It's hard. I find that there are a lot of good things the [Board of Architectural Review] can do — height, scale, and mass kinds of things. But the stylistic input that the BAR has — and more importantly, the stylistic input that the neighbors have — is really a negative, and something that I wish were not the case. But if they didn't love the city, they wouldn't talk about it. So it's a blessing and a curse." When it comes to the residents of Uptown Charleston (Smyth lives in Hampton Park Terrace), however, the story changes. "They seem to be more open to anything that will improve the area, and I try to work in a way to make sure that it does. There's a real fresh feeling up here. It's nice to have people that are excited for change, and the right kind of change."
Hands on. As a former construction laborer (he once fell 12 feet through an open skylight, breaking his ribs and ending his career as a roofer), Smyth's perspective on building draws from multiple sources. He not only spends time on site with the contractors, he documents progress on his blog (designsmyth.com), and considers the interplay between workers and architect part of the process. "I feel that in large part we've lost the expectation of craftsmanship in our new structures. One of my goals is to help to bring this back, to give clients something that they might not have even expected, and things that don't necessarily cost anything more than typical default practices. Craft is really more about an understanding of materials and consideration of the possibilities inherent in them. My role as architect is to give the craftsmen what they need to execute the work in a way that maximizes the potential of any project."