Charleston misunderstood

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Proposed office building recently approved in Charleston, S.C. (Board of Architectural Review)

Charleston’s modernist wannabes have placed their dream of more modern architecture in the hands of a blog called “Buildings Are Cool.” It is written in a breezy style by a young architect named Steve Ramos, who in a recent post asks “Why Charleston Lacks Contemporary Architecture.”

Actually, there is too much contemporary architecture in Charleston. It may not all be “true” contemporary architecture, which, according to Ramos, is “unapologetic and reflects the spirit of the time.” Most of it falls into two categories, which Ramos calls “sandwich” and “mullet.” A sandwich is a contemporary building “hidden” amidst “something familiar and tasty.” A mullet is a contemporary building with “a front façade that addresses the street in a familiar traditional way. And then you have a little modern flourish in the back.”

Unfortunately, Ramos is incorrect to assert that so much contemporary architecture in Charleston may be characterized as timid. Much that is not timid was built several decades ago. Perhaps Ramos means so much recent contemporary architecture. Disrupting the beauty of old streets has become more difficult since the city’s recent battle over a proposed contemporary school of architecture for Clemson and recent reforms designed to bring the development process into better alignment with the laws protecting the city’s historical character. In the face of such sensible reforms, Ramos argues that architecture should be disruptive. Thankfully, Charlestonians have developed a shrinking patience for such shenanigans.

Ramos proposes four plausible reasons Charleston supposedly lacks contemporary architecture. All of these reasons equally explain why Charleston should lack contemporary architecture.

  1. “Contemporary Architecture Is Harder to Fit In”
  2. “Contemporary Architecture Is Hard to Evaluate”
  3. “Contemporary Architecture Can Be Scary”
  4. “Contemporary Design Is Too Risky”

All are good reasons to avoid contemporary architecture, and they explain why, if you are a member of the city’s Board of Architectural Review, it is (to Ramos’s regret) “a lot easier just to say no.” He admits that “the people of Charleston love the beautiful historic context in which we live. We are lucky to live in such a special place.” What Ramos and many of his profession do not seem to realize is that people love the city precisely because it has so little contemporary architecture. For that reason, the BAR finds it “a lot easier to say no” for some very good reasons. (See reasons 1-4 above.) I believe that Ramos & Co. do realize why a majority of Charlestonians want to limit contemporary architecture. They just don’t want to admit it.

Ramos makes his case with reference to a proposed office building at 663 King St., designed by Neil Stevenson Architects, that took three trips to the BAR to be approved. Ramos believes this demonstrates all four reasons why contemporary architecture is difficult in Charleston. Reasons 1, 3 and 4 apply in obvious ways. Reason 4, which says that contemporary buildings are “hard to evaluate,” is a bit more elusive. With admirable candor, Ramos admits that he cannot tell which of the three versions shown at three meetings of the BAR is “superior.” Well, neither can I.

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Maybe Design #1 is superior because it is more of a “true” contemporary building that better “reflects the spirit of the time.” Why? Because it looks more like it is about to collapse, more accurately reflecting the chaos of our era, with its four stories more discombobulated than #2 and #3. (Architects like Ramos and Stevenson long ago abandoned the idea that their profession should help solve society’s problems and now just strives to “reflect” them.) But is there a rule saying that to be a true contemporary building it must be even more ridiculous than the competition? I don’t think so!

Contemporary architecture is hard to evaluate because there are no reliable standards to guide judgment. Modern architecture is a century old and it still has not developed a language understandable to most people, apparently not even to trained architects like Ramos. Traditional architecture of the kind that makes Charleston lovable has evolved over successive generations of practitioners handing down best practices developed by trial and error over centuries. For half a century, architecture has been the only field of human endeavor whose establishment has embraced a professional philosophy that abjures precedent. There is no way to have a plausible rationale for judging the quality of design where no established standards prevail, and there is no standard language to express its quality or lack thereof. So there is no way to judge the superiority of the three versions of 663 King that is not based on pure unadulterated personal taste.

It’s no wonder that most people prefer traditional buildings over alternatives whose ethos favors innovation over the familiar. Human nature naturally resists instability. So it is depressing that Ramos cannot refrain from looking down his nose at Charlestonians. He writes:

True contemporary architecture has the tendency to be very abstract and sculptural.  It requires a very sophisticated eye to discern the good stuff.  It is definitely going to be a challenge for a volunteer board composed of two architects and three non-architects.

Like almost every other modernist, Ramos deludes himself as to the “sophistication” of his stylistic preference. He and they misunderstand genuine creativity, believing it to be that which achieves design as different as possible from previous designs. In fact, true creativity is the discovery of new methods for achieving greater virtuosity in the conventional production of beauty – a new form of brush stroke in painting, a new form of fingering a bassoon, a new form of turning a corner in a colonnade. Having abolished most of the tools for the making of beauty, modern architects have limited themselves to a palette that forces them to embrace the creative gestures of larger scale, with rapidly diminishing returns that lead to more and more ridiculous design conceits, inevitably emphasizing shock value over beauty. Indeed, the calendar of architectural scholarship is chock-a-block with panels and symposia where practitioners and theorists exercise their reluctance to discuss beauty. Architectural scholars have been scratching their heads for decades. By now, modern architecture is best described as a cult. It takes an education in architecture school to design a school of architecture as far out of character for Charleston as the one proposed by Clemson and wisely rejected by the citizens of that fair city.

It is understandable that Charlestonians are reluctant to embrace design strategies that will inevitably undermine the beauty of their city. They reject those strategies because they have watched the ugliness creep in for over half a century. They say no not because it is easier to say no but because it makes more sense to say no.

To conclude, here’s some good news from “Buildings Are Cool”: Note the careful use by Ramos of the phrase “contemporary architecture.” He avoids the phrase “modern architecture” like the plague. Obviously, he fears that readers will cringe if he uses the more conventional phrase. That’s progress! Maybe modernism’s kidnapping of the word modern is not working after all.

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Proposed Clemson architecture school in Charleston.(Brussat archive)

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Superior counter-proposal by Jenny Bevan and Christopher Liberatos. (Bevan & Liberatos)

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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10 Responses to Charleston misunderstood

  1. David,
    As the author of Buildings Are Cool, I thank you for sharing my article and offering a critique. When I write something and send it out to the world I do not expect everyone to agree with me. And with this particular article I had hoped it would initiate further debate. Your article has certainly elevated the conversation and helped spread the word. In fact, it was shared to me by multiple people.

    In no way was I suggesting that the Charleston fabric should be eroded or disrupted. As an urban architect, I fully understand the importance of cohesion in a city’s fabric.

    I also take offense to the sentence that states, “Ramos looks down his nose at Charlestonians.” Anyone that knows me will attest to that as a gross mischaracterization. I am extremely passionate about Charleston and am dedicated to making it better than when I arrived. Perhaps I should not have used the term sophistication. I was only trying to suggest that people’s appreciation level can be affected by their knowledge base. Just like how modern art tends to be of little interest to people who have never studied art. And how the game of golf may be confusing to someone who has never played or learned the rules. One of your commenters Nikos illustrated this concept beautifully by saying that “the mathematics of coherent form” could be used to distinguish among the three proposals. You can’t argue that it took some level of sophistication to arrive at his conclusion.

    I don’t know if you realize this, but we actually met once. About a year ago you were in town along with Andrés Duany. We met at a dinner at Edmund’s Oast.

    I believe we have more in common than your article would suggest and I hope to continue the dialogue. Best wishes –Steve Ramos

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    • Steve, many thanks for your gracious and civilized response to my post. My friend Nathan Walker informs me, in fact, that you are not averse to producing traditional designs. I hope you will share some of these with me. I would be more than happy to share them with my readers, or even publish a guest post by you responding to my own post.

      I don’t believe that most modernists mean to condescend to the public, but the entire modernist project, going back well beyond the origins of modern architecture, is an attack public taste. And I believe the taste of the public, especially in a field such as architecture where each individual has such vast experience since birth, is usually more sophisticated than the experts – again, especially in architecture, where most students and young architects are encouraged to be skeptical of the idea of beauty. So I would say, in reply to your taking offense at my assertion that you “look down your nose at Charlestonians,” that indeed you do. You may not do so on purpose, or realize that you do so, but by engaging in modern architecture you are in the most basic way looking down your nose at the public’s taste. Modern architects consider the public’s suspicion of modern architecture to be a feather in their cap. Again, you may not feel this personally, but it is intrinsic to the game you are playing as an architect. Naturally, neither you nor most other modern architects will ever admit this. It is nevertheless true.

      Any modern architecture erected in the historic district of Charleston must inevitably undermine its cohesion and beauty. You may not intend to do that, but by designing a modernist building for Charleston (unless it is on a site already in a modernist or otherwise ugly setting), or by arguing in its favor before the BAR or a publication that hopes to influence members of the BAR, you participate in a process that leads inevitably to such a result – if the building gets built. If the building does not get built, you participate in a process that encourages the next modernist building, which leads inevitably to the same result. This is true whether you also design traditional buildings or not. You can do a bad thing and then do a good thing, but the latter does not cancel out the former.

      I’m sure that there are a host of ways by which different modernist buildings can be judged, and Nikos demonstrated one of them. But I am sure that he had his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, and that he agrees that modern architecture by its very nature lacks rational standards for valid judgment of the merit of individual project.

      I am glad to be reminded of our meeting a couple of years ago at the TradArch conference. I remember that evening fondly. I hope we will continue this discussion.

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  2. Gary says:

    David In many I think cases Mr. Ramos is commenting on the bias against contemporary architecture and the trend towards replicating historical architecture in lieu of true review of architecture based on its merit not its perceived style and how it fits the tourists perception of place.

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    • Maybe it is a bias, Gary, but not all biases are without rational foundation. In a historical city like Charleston, a bias against modernist architecture that erodes the sense of place created by historic architecture and new architecture that applies the same principles as historical architecture is entirely valid, and not to be denigrated as “fitting the tourists’ perception of place.” It is no less the residents than the tourists who find the city’s beauty a balm to the eviscerating pace and sense of placelessness of the modern era – or, to be more clear, to the era dominated by a sterile modernism that might be more appropriate elsewhere but actually hurts Charleston. New traditional architecture does not “replicate” historical architecture, as in the modernist denunciation “copying the past,” but builds new architecture using methods that were unjustly and immorally squashed when modernists took over the leadership of the profession and the academy. A true review in Charleston based on merit should be founded on the city’s existing law (since 1931) should be biased against modernist design. I think the reason my analysis upsets moderniss in Charleston is that it accurately reported Steve’s accurate description of why it is difficult to get modernist projects through the BAR. All I did was to say that difficulty is warranted. If a robber wanted to get inside your house and you took steps to keep the robber out, that would be a warranted bias against the robber. Ditto modern architecture in Charleston.

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  3. Rick Corrigan says:

    I comment not to praise this architect or his building but bury it. To do so, at least, in spirit to encourage people to learn the law and which areas of the city which regulations cover. When the original ordinance was passed, 671 Meeting St. was miles from the historic district that the ordinance covered. This does not mean that areas with open space or neighborhoods from more recent eras are the free playground for the bizarre. If you are a practicing architect hoping to build in Charleston you should know the rules and the spirit of these rules so well your pencil incorporates them into its renderings.

    Modern Archtecture has had a number of names assigned to its various trends. It was declared at an end with Johnson’s Sony Building in New York. Post- Moderism has also entered the history books. It is very confusing to use the term interchangably with contemporary. In the arts “Modern” is a definable period which had a beginning and an end. It should not be used to mean new or contemporary. There are representative samples of Modern architecture in Charleston and they are getting picked off gradually. All of them were small projects and are or were out of direct interaction with pre- 1930 buildings.

    Any structure built today is contemporary. It is impossible due to cost and the lack of proper materials to reproduce Charleston’s early architecture. A new building is expected by Charleston standards to have all the up to date features and comforts available. Most Charlestonians grew up experiencing a wide variety of architectual styles and today they can tell you pretty quickly what fits and what does not, even if they perfer Greek Revival to Queen Anne or Adamesqe to colonial revival. Unfortunately, the constuction process is not controlled by the taste of thoseevliving in the city. The city is composed of dozens of styles of buildings adapted to Charleston. One thing that does not do well here is the over dramatic, ” the shock of the new,” or the idea of rejecting every convention is somehow art of any worth. It seems Clemson thought the more out of place their school of architecture looked, the more attention they would get.

    Charlestonians are aware that developers are building temporary buildings with no expectation they will last longer than for the business to make money from the project. In people and design, Charlestonians know fakes with a quick glance. Hundreds of buildings, less than 50 years old, of no merit exist around the area because money sp0ke louder than tradition or pride. Poverty on a community wide basis has a long half life.

    When those who build decide that they want to add to the inventory 0f Charleston’s archtectual legacy, archtects will look at the ground on which they are building, then the views, the surrounding environment, the position of the sun and moon as they rise and create buildings of first rate materials, including some recently invented, in a style that d0es not copy the old but sits well in a block with a neo-gothic structure, next to a federalist one and on down the block. Neo-classical is not classical. Only in Tennessee can you see new classical buildings with the goddess in the temple. You can see in Charleston; Palladian, Georgian, Adams Style and neo-colonial, all influenced by classical design. The next neo-classical style has not been invented but it will be. At least I have faith it will unless too many neo-modernists get churned out of architecture school.

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    • Rick, I very much appreciate your thoughtful and comprehensive comment, but I must disagree with you that buildings of quality cannot be built because of cost and material factors. They can, and you are right that some developers and clients might not be able to afford it. Some are cheesy and won’t try. But in fact, as you suggest later in your comment, first-rate materials can and will be used, including some of recent invention. Your conclusion on an optimistic note is valid. With most of what you have to say I find myself in complete agreement.

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  4. Dear David

    Ramos is an idiot, obviously, and the clunky 3d program used to show what the proposed office building will look like make it look awful, in reality it will be far worse; is the BAR composed of people with defective eyesight? or just defective brains.

    best wishes

    Malcolm

    Like

    • The BAR may be blind or dumb; either way their approval for that building, whichever version, proves it. You’d think they’d know enough to obey the law: in 1931, I think it was, Charleston became the first city to create a historic district and protect it – a law that has been honored more in the breach, etc.

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  5. David,

    In fact it’s very easy to use the mathematics of coherent form to distinguish among the three proposals, and to show why No. 3 was chosen. No. 1 has no quality that is consistent with the geometry of life, total points = 0. No. 2 adds vertical translation symmetry = 1 point. No. 3 retains that and adds curvature, joins the 4th storey to the bottom 3 with the same curvature, and adds a splotch of color, total = 4 points. That’s why the review board chose it.

    Contemporary architecture is therefore not that hard to evaluate. Having presented the above analysis, a contemporary building designed by a competent classical architect will most probably score 100 points rather than 4 to make a viewer feel connected to the life of that building.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

    Like

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