The Problem of 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…..
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.