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The Problem of Contemporary Architecture

Group of banks

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.

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Really enjoyed this post – especially as we are IN Charleston right now! On our in-town visit today we will definitely look for this building. Thank you!

    October 27, 2013
    • mtm #

      It is on East Bay Street between Broad and Queen. Enjoy your time in CHS

      October 27, 2013
      • Thank you – we did find the Moorish building on East Bay, plus some other beautiful places between there and the Heywood-Washington house on Church St. (including the home of Charleston’s 1st architect!) What a great city for sightseeing!

        October 27, 2013
      • Thank you! We found and photographed your Moorish building on East Bay. We got a personal tour of the Heywood/Washington House from a fellow Mainer no living in CHS, then walked through the surrounding neighborhood down to East Bay – what a lot of gorgeous homes! We paid you a small homage by stopping to genuflect in front of the house (that according to the sign) belonged to Charleston’s 1st architect

        October 28, 2013
  2. Alice #

    Well said MTM. I also think your photo perfectly illustrates where the heart of the debate should be. While the Farmers and Exchange building is stylistically a departure from the style of its neighbor, its proportion and scale “fit” quite well. There are several examples in Charleston of recent buildings with more traditional details that do not “fit” very well within the fabric of the city – interrupting vistas and disrupting the rhythms of the street – yet they passed through the approval process with hardly a whimper. Wolves in sheep’s clothing if you ask me.

    October 27, 2013
  3. I now have a better appreciation of Architectural angst. For me it was the Ieon Pei pyramid at the Louvre. Thanks

    October 27, 2013
  4. Integrity. Is Needed In All Work (Apologies For The Capitalization. I Have No Idea Why My Phone Does This.) :-/

    October 27, 2013
  5. You’d probably be aghast at my agreement with upholding the Neoclassical continuity. I’m not saying the Farmers’ and Exchange Bank isn’t a handsome structure in its own right, however, I can’t stand flies in the ointment. I’d have it razed at the drop of a hat. That’s why people won’t want me in that line of work. I don’t mess around with debate. Bull in a china shop, etc.

    What I find disconcerting about this post is its fussing over the finer points in architecture. Please don’t think I’m being rough, as I support the arts more than the average American. I find architecture an art form without question. There was a structure in my town that needed demolished due to severe neglect. The zeitgeist of 1890s Ohio gone in a heartbeat… Neoclassical, too, from what my untrained eye can ascertain. I have a couple of pictures, if you’re interested.

    However, here’s my Vesti la Giubba moment: my town isn’t fighting over the plans of bright minds. We’re fighting the crassness of commercialism. Steel boxes, with no more life in them than their contents, are sprouting up everywhere… and no one seems to care. Folks too simple for their own good, I’ve often said.

    So, you might be able to imagine the emotional conflict when I see well-written, erudite arguments between Neoclassical and Neo-Moorish in Charleston, when it’s a losing battle to the grossness of drywall and asphalt here.

    Your argument though, to a Charlestonian (right demonym?), is something they should consider. I’m sure there are other buildings regarded as treasures that are of a different style.

    October 27, 2013
  6. Wow. That photo just says it all.

    October 27, 2013
  7. The mess alongside that lovely building should be reduced to rubble without delay. I can see no feature at all to recommend it. On its own, it would still be bland and uninteresting. In the company of the elegant old building, it is an affront – which takes us aback, and has no virtue sideways either! What idiots allowed that even to reach a planning stage?
    The old building seems to be designed on practical and utilitarian lines to complement the attractiveness. I have seen similar configurations which provide plenty of light, space and convenience.

    October 27, 2013
    • I agree, The Brown stone building with Circular windows, even though was probably showing the technology of the time, just doesn’t fit in with the classical steel columns of the much older building to the right. How they could build the much newer Moorish building in an old city like Charleston goes to show that the BAR wasn’t active in the 1850’s, at least not to the level it is today.

      October 28, 2013
  8. I like it ~ as you note, it’s “exquisitely idiosyncratic, deliciously detailed and elegantly proportioned.”

    In stark contrast, the baby blue building by its side looks insipid, simpering, and uninspired.

    October 27, 2013
  9. If done correctly and with attention to the “fit”, a different style can work well. An example you will probably hate, but I think the glass-fronted Apple Store on King Street fits in fine, does not detract from the other buildings, and is attractive. On the other hand there are buildings that were ugly from the day they were built, didn’t fit in, and never will – the just razed old library comes to mind as does the old federal building just across Meeting Street from it.

    As for the proposed Clemson structure, I am still undecided. But thankfully that is not my line of work! It is up to the experts, hopefully, or the politicians (I hope not). I just wish it had a streetcar line running in front. Now that would be both historically accurate and useful at the same time.

    October 27, 2013
  10. designsmyth #

    Reblogged this on designsmyth and commented:
    Interesting thoughts from Michael Maher, Director of the Charleston Civic Design Center on Calhoun Street.

    October 27, 2013
  11. (Mate/Target/Muse) – I can’t even tell you how perfectly hilarious and serious this is! I can’t tell you because YOU ALREADY KNOW!

    “everyone from designers to dilettantes” – such a perfect phrase I am upset that I have only just heard it

    The Farmers and Exchange is definitely fun to look at, but I must admit I kinda dig the way it looks next to the color on the next building. And I hate that I like that color combination because I’m positive it makes me seem a bit boorish, but what can you do.

    As for the Clemson building, I love it. The openness and how well it blends with and pulls in the greenery around it just makes me smile.

    October 27, 2013
  12. Love the quote ;) I use it all the time.!

    October 27, 2013
  13. I enjoyed this – and I appreciate the Farmers’ and Exchange Bank.

    October 27, 2013
  14. …and from the sound of Andra’s blogs, you wisely didn’t marry one:)

    October 28, 2013
  15. Very interesting! I often find the oddity makes all the difference in beauty as well! (That is one of my favorite sayings/quotes at the end!)

    October 28, 2013
  16. The poorly behaved are always less fun, as well. At least in my opinion!

    Blogging from Ecuador,

    October 28, 2013
  17. Great post. Sometimes buildings from other eras look great side by side. In my uninformed opinion, though, not often. It took me a long long time before I got used to the IM Pei building in the courtyard of the Louvre. Now? I like it.

    October 28, 2013
  18. I do believe that every city has a history, and one of the ways to hold onto the character is in its structures. If every new building were a replica of the originals the city would be a cartoon of itself, or Disneyland. But it does seem odd to me when a design doesn’t attempt to complement the surrounding buildings and that’s what I see in your example. The second structure looks entirely out of place because it doesn’t add anything to the F & E Bank. Some great design opportunities were lost.

    October 29, 2013
  19. In my humble opinion the two designs clash. There is no harmony in this marriage of these two buildings. At the very least they could have left a walkway between the two.
    Design Grade: Failure

    October 29, 2013
  20. MTM – I adore the idiosyncratic, and while I cannot give an educated opinion on architecture, I can only say, as a true dilettante, that “I don’t know art; I only know what I like.” I do like history, and American Gothic, Washington Irving in particular, so I say keep it! We shouldn’t be so quick to bulldoze history to redecorate with modern aesthetic. If we did, none of Andra’s Talking Heads records would survive the purge!
    Also, may I just say that I simply loved this line, darling: “Here everyone from designers to dilettantes hold passionate positions on appropriateness and architecture.” If that wasn’t written specifically with me and my love of alliteration in mind, well, I’m just going to claim it for myself nonetheless.
    Helena (proud new owner of a rather SPECIAL calendar)

    October 29, 2013

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