The ship of state is famously hard to turn. One oped criticizing modern architecture does not a candidate for membership in the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art make. The New York Times remains a stalwart of the establishment on matters architectural. Evidence for this fact was abundant in its story last week by Richard Fausset, “In Stately Charleston, the New Buildings on the Block Are Struggling to Fit In.”
Bias in favor of modern architecture is baked into the story so deeply that the writer is probably unaware of it. Fact is, the new buildings proposed for Charleston are not struggling to fit in. They are trying not to fit in. The original headline was “As Its Economy Grows, Charleston Is Torn Over Its Architectural Future.” Charleston is not torn over its architectural future. Its law requires a preference for architecture that fits in, and its population, almost as one, opposes architecture that does not fit in.
Unfortunately, some experts there think new buildings should contrast with old ones. They are playing skunk at the Charleston garden party, trying to stink up the place. Because a few inhabit the city’s Board of Architectural Review, it is not surprising that outsiders, such as Fausset, have been fooled into thinking that the city is “torn.”
It is not torn. It is under attack. The chief element of bias arises from the picture Fausset paints of a “debate” evenly pitched. He gives each side its say. In fact, the modernist side is a small claque of modernist architects seeking to inflict modernist buildings on a city whose population rejects them. The looking-backward/looking-forward false dichotomy gets a vigorous workout in Fausset’s story. He also buys into the idea that economic progress and civic beauty are necessarily opposed, that you can’t have one without limiting the other.
In the face of heated opposition, Clemson University recently withdrew an effort to get the BAR to ram a proposed “ultramodern” design for its architecture school into the historic district. Fausset quotes a Clemson official, Ray Huff: “But with the new growth pressure, Mr. Huff said, ‘We can’t be the slow-paced, sleepy town that I grew up in anymore.’ ”
No, Ray. It’s not about a slow, sleepy pace long gone anyway. It’s about the beauty for which Charleston is famous. Beauty and progress can go hand in hand, as proved by the two millennia leading up to what Fausset refers to as the “advances in architecture from about 1919 on.”
Whether they truly are “advances” is a question bothering architecture today, but almost nobody in Charleston is bothered. Nor ought they to be. That the New York Times reporter does not understand precisely what the fuss is all about is hardly surprising. It amounts to a prejudice that goes so deep that its perpetrators are unaware of it. If the New York Times were aware of it, it would be the first in line to attack it.