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The Problem of Contemporary Architecture Redux

Charleston will be in a tizzy today, or at least certain elements of it, as an unabashedly-contemporary building gained approval last night at the City’s Board of Architectural Review. To embrace the controversy, I thought I’d re-run MTM’s piece about his views on Charleston and contemporary architecture:

Besides being Andra’s MTM (Mate/Target/Muse), I am also an architect in Charleston, SC. That means I am often asked my opinions about various Charleston buildings, especially works of contemporary architecture. Here everyone from designers to dilettantes hold passionate positions on appropriateness and architecture. This is especially so these days, as architectural controversy is once again ascendant with the debate over the new Clemson Architecture Center. So, in the spirit of this past week’s series, I offer one argument on contemporary architecture in Charleston. [Verbosity Warning: Read on at your own risk]

You see, Charleston is well known for its superb collection of Neoclassical buildings, having one of the most intact historic districts in America, a treasure trove of fine buildings inspired by proper Greek and Roman precedents. Charleston was once a truly prosperous place, particularly from the 1830s up until, oh, say December 20, 1860. Its character and charm is often identified with the consistency of the Classical architectural language which defined the boomtown that was antebellum Charleston.

Yet contemporary architects too often aim to provoke with a poke in the eye, as they assert their artistic license with an insistence on the new and the experimental, the fashionable Zeitgeist. This is what raises ire, as we consider design that has really no relation to Charleston’s well-established and revered style. In the midst of the historic district, and cheek by jowl with traditional Classical buildings, an architect has offered up a design that is most distinguished by how absolutely foreign it is: the design is all wrong for this city, relying on a style that finds no precedent in Charleston, built of materials that might seem more typical of New York or other Yankee outposts of the Northeast, and so self-consciously Avant Garde,

As has been pointed out by many local preservationists, there are so many opportunities in newer outlying areas of the city that there is no defensible rationale for an architect to be allowed to insert an egotistical affront to Charleston’s tradition of classicism. This city is a recognized leader in the historic preservation movement, and has a well-established system for the community to have its say when it comes to the design of buildings, pioneering America’s first design review committee, the Board of Architectural Review (BAR). In fact, the ordinance that created the BAR codified a legal imperative for new buildings to be “harmonious” with those that have gone before.

Thus it can confidently be asserted that the design in question is clearly inappropriate, an affront to harmony, and thus most certainly illegal, as it violates every characteristic that makes Charleston Charleston: I leave it to you to decide if this building is right for Charleston…..

F and E Bank

Bordering on satire, this post questions the design of the fabulous  Farmers’ and Exchange Bank (pictured at left) designed in 1854 by Edward C. Jones and Francis D. Lee and originally built between the Greek Revival Planters and Mechanics Bank and a more typical Charleston Neoclassical commercial building. Its style is clearly not Classical and not at all of Charleston. It is most accurately referred to as Neo-Moorish, a foreign invention imported from the south of Spain at a time when the leading fashion in architecture was experimentation in exotic styles discovered as artists, writers and architects  traveled the world. It was and is still most assuredly classifiable as Contemporary Architecture, in the most accurate use of the term. Designed in the spirit of its age, its design likely owes its inspiration to Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra” which was first published in 1832 and again more widely in 1851. It is constructed of Connecticut and New Jersey Brownstone. The building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

The Farmers’ and Exchange Bank is my favorite building in Charleston. It is exquisitely idiosyncratic, deliciously detailed and elegantly proportioned; Charleston would be lesser for its loss or its lack. As we consider the design of new buildings in Charleston, I think it is always valid to ask if today’s opinions and processes would have allowed such a building to be built.  I firmly believe the greatness of Charleston’s architectural legacy owes more to ambition and audacity than it does to charm and good manners. As they say: well-behaved women seldom make history.

29 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wonderful building….did you Photoshop in the palm tree to confirm its neo- moorishness:)

    June 26, 2014
    • Love Cheryl’s reply below. 🙂 Very in keeping with the hysteria that is sometimes Charleston. (I don’t know whether you knew that Kate Shrewsday is bringing her family to Charleston in August for 3 days. I’m tickled silly.)

      June 26, 2014
      • We’re really looking forward to it, Andra 😀 and MTM’s comments about the historic district are really exciting. Can’t wait.

        June 29, 2014
  2. Nope, that Palmetto tree had been there for eons, and is in fact probably protected too. 😉

    June 26, 2014
    • We do tend to go overboard protecting things around here. 🙂

      June 26, 2014
  3. Sometimes you just have to wonder what the BAR is thinking. It is a beautiful building but it doesn’t really fit Meeting Street at CofC. Above the Crosstown, in Mount Pleasant or 526 by the airport would have been excellent locations for this style.

    And I wonder if the height limit will soon be the next thing to be challenged.

    June 26, 2014
    • I know you feel the way a lot of people do, Howard, and I respect that. But I have to disagree. We wouldn’t have the building MTM cited, let alone places like the art deco Riviera Theater or the Francis Marion Hotel if Charleston always viewed architecture that way. We used to be a cutting edge city, an audacious city, and that mixed up fabric is what people want to come here and see. I think this will be an interesting addition to the fabric of Meeting Street, something people will walk that way on purpose to take in, to photograph and to tour. I’m excited that it’s moving forward.

      June 26, 2014
      • Pardon me for saying so but the Francis Marion Hotel is ugly inside and out. I do like the Riviera however. And I like the Charleston Museum which is contemporary. The building MTM mentioned looks very much like it belongs in Charleston although the purists might not think so.

        June 26, 2014
  4. I have an eclectic sensibility when it comes to just about anything design-y. So, I see nothing wrong with building a decidedly contemporary building in a city known for its historical buildings. My beef with buildings always comes down to scale and quality. If the proportions are right and the building isn’t ramshackle [technical architecture term], I’m good with it. But I can understand how this new building is going to ruffle many a Charlestonian’s feather. This will be fun to watch from afar.

    June 26, 2014
    • Many a Charlestonian have nothing to do but get ruffled. 🙂 (I can say things like that now that MTM no longer works for our fair city.)

      June 26, 2014
      • lol. No doubt you are right.

        June 26, 2014
  5. Well said, MTM. The two buildings side by side make me giggle. I guess you can please everybody! (or try to)

    June 26, 2014
  6. Still a thought-provoking piece, MTM.

    Living on the outskirts of a rather audacious city, that one of “big shoulders” and now a big steely TRUMP sign that has spawned much ado, and having just sat under a rather ugly pavilion that makes up for its steely character with excellent acoustics, I’m rather impressed with those who build outside the box. I’d love to know how this progresses.

    June 26, 2014
    • I think Chicago is one of the most interesting cities in the world, Penny. I love how they’re always pushing the building and landscape envelope. Even when I don’t like the individual result (as with the Gehry pavilion you mention), it all comes together in this feast for the senses. I always come back from Chicago refreshed and energized.

      June 26, 2014
  7. My daughter got her Masters at SCAD in Historic Preservation. She’s way into it. I’ll forward this blog to her.

    June 26, 2014
  8. What are they going to erect at the Sgt. Jasper site??

    June 26, 2014
    • No idea, Jill. They’ve wanted to tear it down for a very long time now. I’ll miss the star on the top of the building during the holidays. I told John Darby that.

      June 26, 2014
  9. Oh, please do keep us posted….and I’ll be very interested to see whether the newer neighbors on the next corner to the south will weigh in with an opinion :). Anything, tastefully done, that replaces the current single-story, squat occupant on that corner should be an improvement!

    June 26, 2014
    • That building has been a dud for so long, hasn’t it? I’ll be very happy to see it go.

      June 26, 2014
  10. Well done. I invite MTM to come speak at my husband’s town meetings, select board meetings and new development meetings! We could use him here in little ‘ol Amherst. 🙂

    June 26, 2014
  11. Cool! Gonna have to send this link to Sara!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    June 26, 2014
  12. i also embrace and appreciate an eclectic look to a city, gives it character and shows certain level of comfort and confidence, so i am all for it )

    June 26, 2014
  13. tarakianwarrior #

    I love Architects. 😀

    June 26, 2014
  14. You can fight City Hall. We have done so for 6 years now and have a resolution that please the City of Fairborn and the neighbors that will be affected.

    June 27, 2014
  15. I am of the opinion that a mish-mash of gobbledygook does not work, anywhere, ever. Both of those buildings would be ideal matched with others of the same general style. Juxtaposed, they simply look ridiculous.

    June 28, 2014
  16. I have no issue with contemporary mixed with traditional. I tend to enjoy the buildings that don’t blend in. In some cases the more audacious the design the more thrilling. If I were an architect I would most assuredly want to make a statement and leave an impression, not fade into the backdrop of all that came before. Where I draw the line is tearing buildings down and not preserving the original history. But making new history is just fine with me. There, I’ve said it! 🙂

    June 29, 2014
  17. I love the building design. In the City of London, you get old next to new on a Mediaeval street pattern; it has the feeling of an eclectic collection, each building with its story. The little Georgian buildings do not take affront at the high glass structures which jostle them. There’s a great glass shopping mall across the road from St Paul’s. Old and new often sit well together precisely because of the contrast. Fantastic post 🙂

    June 29, 2014

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