The Times eyes Charleston

Queen Street in Charleston. (charlestondailyphoto.blogspot.com)

Queen Street in Charleston. (charlestondailyphoto.blogspot.com)

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.

Old Charleston under attack by the new. (nytimes.com)

Old Charleston under attack. (nytimes.com)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to The Times eyes Charleston

  1. Fenno Hoffman, (Architect) says:

    Spot on! Fish don’t feel wet. False narratives, dichotomies, and equivalencies plague the Modern argument. Exactly. Bravo !

    Like

  2. Richard J Jackson MD MPH says:

    Mayor Reilly is a hero, and has been a bulwark against one more desperately repetitive boring box city, especially in the coastal south. Charleston is a pearl of delight. I am a physician and the idea of sticking a box in Charleston is akin to a plastic surgeon sewing nostrils shut. What could these “improvers” be thinking?

    Like

    • Reilly is indeed a hero, but he is not without his lapses. Why, for example, did he support the Clemson abomination? He more than anyone knows how much it would have hurt, and yet with his many years as mayor, he more than anyone would recognize that Clemson probably would have backed down a long time ago if confronted directly by the mayor.

      The hardest part of writing this post was squaring the idea that Charleston is essentially united against insensitive interventions in its historic beauty with the idea that its mayor had supported the Clemson proposal. I squared that circle by ignoring it. But the answer is, first, that despite this lapse Reilly is on the right side, and second, his lapse(s) still are overwhelmed by popular support for his more typical actions that have strengthened Charleston’s beauty. Charleston really is largely undivided in support of strengthening its chief economic asset – its beauty. That is the main reason it has resisted influential efforts to spot its beauty with ugly modernism.

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