I have a huge favor for the architecture community. I ask that the Architects in Charleston share this article with their colleagues.
There have been some extremely interesting developments this past week regarding our city and our profession. If you practice architecture in Charleston, then you have a professional obligation to be well informed on this subject.
I am intentionally trying to withhold my opinion from this article because I think it is important that you develop your own opinions on the subject. And if I missed something, or got something wrong, please let me know down in the comments section.
Lets get ready to rumble!
Last week I witnessed one of the the most interesting and controversial developments I have seen in my 7 years practicing in the Holy City. That development was not the Sergeant Jasper, it was not the Horizon District, and it was not the Clemson Architecture Center. It was no building at all.
It was the arrival of the acclaimed planner and architect, Andres Duany.
Andres Duany and his firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) had been hired by the City of Charleston and the Historic Charleston Foundation to make suggestions on how Charleston could improve the quality of its architecture. According to Duany, he was practically begged by Mayor Joe Riley to come and help Charleston. And that Mayor Riley had said that the new architecture being produced today in Charleston “just isn’t good enough.”
The main focus of Duany's team would be on the re-working of the Board of Architectural Review (B.A.R.) In addition to his recommendations for the B.A.R., Duany would be making numerous suggestions for how all parties can contribute to the betterment of the city. Especially the architects.
Duany's team was here all last week. They went on several walking tours of the city, had closed door meetings with several different groups, and held 2 large public meetings at the Charleston Museum Auditorium.
I attended the 2 public meetings and one smaller private meeting that included 8 local architects. I have to say that it was kind of a fun week. Definitely atypical. And I feel lucky that our profession is at the center of such an important debate.....whoops...there goes an opinion.
During the 3 meetings, I compiled over 20 pages of notes. I was scribbling away like a mad man. And looking back through the notes I struggle to find the best way to present the work. And because I am in a hurry to get this posted, I’m going to do what I do when I don’t have a good idea…...make a top 10 list.........Wait, scratch that...to further my boxing metaphor...and because 10 wasn't enough. I present you a 12 round Championship Bout.
Round 1. That dude can talk.
I was continuously entertained by Duany's ability to capture his audience. He shared a wealth of knowledge and gained the audiences trust by explaining his expertise and experience. I think his real gift was the way he would alternate his academic theories on planning and architecture with silly anecdotes and comical insights on the people of our city. It was like he was saying...."Hey man...I may be an expert on this stuff....but I'm a goof-ball just like you."
And you know you got it going on when you can lob insults at your crowd and manage to get alternating bouts of applause and laughter. It was remarkable. If he was a comedian, he would be the legendary insult comic Don Rickles. Which brings me to my next point.
Round 2. He pulled no punches.
In the private meeting with the architects, Duany said that Mayor Riley had instructed Duany to "bust their ass." And that he did. Duany came out swinging throwing punches at everyone in his path.
- The NIMBY's - He consistently referred to the existing well-to-do population as the NIMBY's. (NIMBY = Not in my back yard). Criticizing them for stopping progress and propelling us towards a Geriatric Monoculture.
- The Preservation Groups - He criticized the historic preservation groups for being vehicles of NIMBYSM.
- The Fire Marshal - Really...the Fire Marshal? He said that the Fire Marshal was ruining the City by allowing the fire trucks to dictate development. Because fire trucks are getting bigger and bigger, newer developments that follow the dimensions of Charleston's historically compact streets can no longer be built.
- The Police Chief - No public officials were safe. He said the Police Chief just doesn't get it and thinks that bicycles are a blight.
- The B.A.R. - The B.A.R. was the main focus of the DPZ team. Duany laughed that the folks on the B.A.R. did not think that they were of any blame.
- Zoning - The zoning code was consistently referred to as a giant joke.
- Clemson - Clemson was referred to as a parasitic university that wanted to be like Harvard and have nothing to do with the betterment of the city.
- Charlotte and Atlanta - Apparently it is the wild-wild west in these cities where anything goes. Whenever something wasn't good enough for Charleston, Duany commented that it was good enough for Charlotte and Atlanta.
- Architects - Hey...we knew we were going to get bloodied. A lot of the focus was on the architects. The architects in Duany's words want to be "liberated from the historic constraints," and don't understand the Charleston Brand. And that they have contempt for the public.
- Mayor Riley - His only fault in Mayor Joe Riley is that the Mayor "wants first rate everything." And that goes for every square inch of the peninsula. In Duany's opinion, if you try to make everything too great, then it will fail. Instead it is better to focus and prioritize on certain areas.
Round 3. Duany loves Charleston and Mayor Joe.
Duany did not hesitate to explain his admiration of our city and how it had helped him formulate his theories on the best urbanism. In fact, he says that 100% of his dimensional knowledge about cities came directly from the City of Charleston. He uses these findings in his new developments. He thinks that our streets work very well and he also championed the Charleston Single House as "genius."
It was also very clear that he is extremely tight with Mayor Joe Riley. He described Mayor Riley as a policy genius. And said that his socioeconomic instincts were spot on and that it was built into his DNA. He talked of the Mayor's excellent speaking ability and claimed that at a lecture in Cuba, the Mayor brought the communists to tears!
He highlighted the tremendous comeback story that Riley had led in Charleston. And said that we are now at a point where Charleston can be very demanding. He said we should demand only the best for new developments and if developers aren't up for the task then they should hit the bricks. Or head to Charlotte or Atlanta.
Round 4. NIMBYSM + Preservation Groups = Geriatric Ghetto
I really enjoyed Duany's frequent references to the NIMBY's. Probably because those were some of the few times that he wasn't razzing the architects. He must of said the word NIMBYSM 30 times, but never once explained what it stood for. For those that don't know, the NIMBYs are the 'Not In My Back Yard' people. You know, the folks that say..."I don't have a problem with building a school, just build it anywhere but near my house." Or "I know that this big ugly building sucks, but I'd rather keep big ugly than have anything new."
Duany said that when the public process privileges the immediate neighbors, that is wrong and undemocratic. It is socialist.
And he criticized the historic preservation groups for being the vehicles for NIMBYSM saying it would morph Charleston into a Geriatric Monoculture.
He highlighted that our city sidewalks provide a false sense of our population demographics. He reminded us that the young kids that are walking around the streets are temporary college students. And that the middle class folks you see pushing their strollers are the tourists here to see Rainbow Row. These are not residents.
Are we already a Geriatric Monoculture?
Duany joked that the population that is one day walking down the sidewalk eventually is a population that is toddling along. And once they get to that point they won't like anything. They won't like the buildings, the won't like loud music, they can't stand food smells...He had the crowd rolling with that one.
The inability to provide affordable housing for the middle class has many indirect consequences. One of those that Duany highlighted was that the College of Charleston professors would not be able to afford to live downtown. He said that we will never raise the level of our universities if the professors cannot live in the city. If we could solve that problem then Duany was convinced that the college could compete with the best in the world. Rather than sending the professors out to the suburbs for their rambler on the cul-de-sac. Again the room erupted.
Round 5. Traffic and Parking
Duany went on many rants about Charleston's reoccurring traffic and parking debate. Most recently this issue bubbled to the surface as a popular complaint with the Sergeant Jasper proposal. Duany said that "arguing about traffic is beneath our intelligence!" He said he had a secret to reveal about traffic problems:
"No traffic problem has ever been solved."
If you don't wan't traffic problems then build a bunch of parking lots and create a sub-standard place that no one wants to visit. And when you provide convenient parking everywhere you get:
Duany recommended lowering the parking requirements or even better, don't require new buildings to provide any parking. He said that the necessity of new projects to incorporate parking structures ultimately leads to:
Round 6. Big Buildings
A major genesis of Charleston's contemporary Archi-Struggle is the presence of the Big Buildings. Developments are just getting bigger and bigger. And with the population boom that is anticipated, larger buildings are the new reality. So why is this a problem:
Duany said that the preservation groups and NIMBY's have a strong distaste for these newer larger buildings.
The Architects have said that it is challenging designing these bigger buildings in Charleston.
So what do we do?
According to Duany the solution is right under our nose. Duany said that we need to seek out the older tall buildings in our city and learn from them. He showed slides of the Fort Sumter House on the battery, the Peoples Building at Broad and State, the Francis Marion Square and the Mills House.
The Mills House was definitely the unexpected star of the week. It was brought up by Duany over and over about how a big building was not that hard to design. It could be very simple like the Mills House. He showed the picture of the facade, counted the stories, pointed out that it was very simple, and concluded that it worked and felt like Charleston.
Why haven't architects been referencing the Mills House?.....biting my tongue.
Round 7. The Architects
Duany definitely threw some haymakers at the Charleston architects. And he mentioned several times that the local community does not think very highly of the new practicing architects.
After spending some time speaking with Architects, Duany made a number of generalized statements about the design community. He said that:
The architects do not understand Charleston Architecture.
In fact, the architects have some sort of disdain for the old architecture, they think that it is dullsville and want to be liberated from its constraints.
The architects only want to design buildings that say "look at me."
And the architects have a high sense of contempt for the community.
That last one really stung.
Duany's advice for the architects:
- Focus on the bottoms of buildings - He said we are too focused on designing fancy metal cornices up high where no one can appreciate them. Focus the design attention and money on things down low at the street level where they are appreciated.
- Calm down - Said we were trying to do too many things with our buildings. And that in good urban design, buildings cooperate towards a sense of place.
- Appreciate the Urban Realm and design Civil Buildings - Duany said that buildings have a responsibility to their context. And that in good urban design, the facades of the buildings act as the walls of a room. He told us to look at Paris. In Paris, the heights of the buildings are consistent and the undulations of the facades are limited. The result is very quiet repetitive buildings that work together in forming a space.
- We Don't Need Architects From Charleston, We Need Architects of Charleston. He showed slides of over a dozen new buildings in Charleston. These were buildings that his team photographed while touring the city with the non-architects. The interesting part was that he thought that most of the buildings were in fact "o.k." But followed that up by saying that some of them would be perfect for Charlotte....or Atlanta. This was definitely a jab on Charlotte and Atlanta. But Duany's point was not to criticize those cities. His point was that this new architecture did not reflect the:
Round 8. The Charleston Brand
This was my biggest take-away from the week. Duany consistently emphasized that the secret to righting the ship was for the architects to unite together and stoke the Charleston Brand. Another phrase he used was develop a vernacular mindset.
In my meeting with the architects, Duany challenged us:
"Can you guys work together?" he said.
He talked of his planned communities where the architecture sequentially got better as the builders and architects would share design and construction advice. He said, "if somebody came up with a good eave detail, others would copy."
He used the example of the architects in Seattle who have worked together to develop a vernacular that is specific to the Pacific Northwest. He also mentioned the work of Lake Flato of San Antonio which has become indicative of that region of the country.
He asked why we weren't using the work of W.G. Clarke for inspiration. And criticized us for looking outside of Charleston for inspiration.
He asked, "Why are we importing when we should be exporting?"
And he said if an architect is not up for this challenge......."then head to Charlotte or Atlanta! "
9. Riley School of Architecture vs. Clemson
This was one of the most un-expected developments of the week. Duany suggested that one way for Charleston to foster its brand, would be to develop a brand new school of Architecture. This school's sole focus would be on the preservation and future development of Charleston. And he jokingly dubbed the school the "Riley School of Architecture."
This school would not only teach architecture, but would also include craftsmanship, planning, policy, and development. He explained that having this school would lead to all different types of positive benefits. For example, having more smaller developers would mean more smaller projects.
But there is only one problem. Duany explained that this new architecture school would never be born while the Clemson Architecture Center is in Charleston.
And this is where things got a ugly. Duany said that:
The Clemson Architecture School is a parasite that does not care about Charleston, but only cares about being cool.
I am not from Clemson, but I even felt bruised from that one.
He said they want to be the "Harvard of the South." And in their pursuit of being world class, Duany thought that they have turned their back on Charleston.
In the private architects meeting that I attended, one of the architects was Ray Huff, FAIA. Mr. Huff is the Director of the Clemson Architecture School. Let's just say that things got pretty heated between Duany and Huff. It was definitely uncomfortable to watch.....but borderline entertaining. Come on........I'm a dude and who doesn't like a title fight.
The low point was when Mr. Huff explained that Clemson does care about Charleston and that he had founded the program 27 years ago. At which point Duany said:
"27 years and you have failed."
If we are still using the boxing metaphor, I would call that a low blow.
10. The B.A.R.
This was where the real meat was. Duany's main focus was on analyzing the Board of Architectural Review (B.A.R.) The problems he observed were the following:
- Most were convinced that projects were not improved by the B.A.R. process. And that they got 'watered down' as a result.
- The B.A.R. reviews way too many projects. Apparently 2000 projects were reviewed last year, 10% at the board level which left 1800 projects for the staff to review. 1800, holy sh*t!
- One of the main culprits he highlighted was that the area of jurisdiction was too extensive. He showed the sequential growth of the historic district map and jokingly referred to it as comparable to the growth of the Holy Roman Empire.
- The result is that the machine is trying to do too much. And when you try to protect everything, you fail.
- The city architect is not interested in Charleston architecture and would instead like to import ideas. He cited that the City Architect repeatedly shows pictures of architecture from outside of Charleston, which Duany believes to be a mistake.
What they are going to recommend:
- Architectural guidelines that are more sympathetic to the Charleston Brand.
- Re-working the member composition and process of the B.A.R.
- Develop different standards for different areas of the peninsula. And not all roads are created equal.
- Civic, University and Medical buildings should be removed from the B.A.R.'s purview. They should have their own set of guidelines.
My apologies in advance for the quality of these images. These are photographs I took of the presentation, hence the skewing and poor color.
Duany concluded that if a developer or architect does not want to follow these rules, then they can build anywhere in the 101 square mile area outside of the 4 mile historic district. Or they can......... "go to Charlotte or Atlanta."
Although their focus was on the B.A.R., Duany's team recognized that the City of Charleston Zoning Ordinance was a culprit as well. They would be making the following recommendations:
- Simplify, simplify, simplify. Duany showed the zoning map below with the 40+ different zoning classifications listed on the left. It is a disaster he said.
- One of the biggest errors he said is the zoning restriction which limits building height by number of feet instead of stories. He acknowledged that this results in developers wanting to squeeze in as many stories as possible resulting in buildings with very small floor-to-floor heights. "Nobody can resolve the facade of an 8' ceiling," he said.
- And again stated that civic buildings should be un-coded.
12. We will be o.k.
Duany's team will continue to work on their analysis and recommendations for our city. He said his job was not to convince anybody. And that when they are done with their report they are going to toss it over the wall and leave. Again reiterating, "I am not here to convince anybody."
And he said "if you do nothing, you will be o.k." He said that throughout the week. It was his way of saying, "you think you got problems......umm...have you heard of Detroit? St. Louis? New Orleans? any city in Ohio?....thems is problems."
And in fact we are doing o.k......but remember...O.K. is not good enough for Charleston!
Remember when I said I took 20 pages of notes. Here were some little nuggets that didn't make the 12 round cut, but were interesting enough to share:
The Greek Oath vs. The Roman Oath
Duany mentioned that Mayor Riley keeps the Greek Oath in his office which reads:
"We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and the Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City's laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public's sense of civic duty. Thus in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."
Duany suggested that we would be better off with the much shorter Roman Oath, which reads:
"Men do not love Rome because she is beautiful. Rome is beautiful because men have loved her."
On the New Building Code (IBC 2012)
Duany referred to the new code as the New Jersualem. He joked: "There should be no lines at bathrooms, the buildings should be designed to accomodate 40,000 appliances, the buildings should be designed to withstand 3 storms at once."
He said that up until now the code enforcement in Charleston has ruled with a very delicate hand using very humane interpretations. Which has been pivotal in the preservation of Charleston.
But he warned us to be wary of "administrative creep. And said that "regulations should preserve place."
Duany commended the firm of Bevan & Liberatos for creating a counter proposal for the Sergeant Jasper project. Said that the city should hire architects for more counter proposals. According to Duany counter proposals are very popular in Brussels.
On the Sergeant Jasper Project
Said that people were asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking how big and how many cars? People should have been focused on "What is the housing like? Is it affordable?"
Lawyers = Ends Badly
On several occassions Duany eluded to recent projects in which lawyers were brought in. He advised us against this. He said "I've seen this before and it doesn't end well. It ends very badly!"
The Horizon District Project
Duany visited the B.A.R. meeting on Wednesday night and witnessed what he described as a very depressing event. He was specifically referring to the presentation of the new Horizon District Project. He described that the architect presenting the project was severely lacking in energy and enthusiasm. And that the board was equally dull and tiresome and seemed to recommend approval based on the fact that the project had already been denied twice.
He said it was so depressing that he felt the urge to leave and get a drink. He also criticized the project for being trendy and not indicative of Charleston.
This was around the time when Duany was highlighting the success of other Charleston big buildings such as the Mills House. He then revealed that he had given one of his staff members 6 hours to create a better version of the Horizon project. And then he showed us the image on the right.
When the new rendering was revealed I heard a series of sighs in the crowd similar to what you hear at the grand finale of a fire works show. People were totally enamored by the Duany version. It was unbelievable.
Duany described Marion Square as "unbelievably ratty and profoundly misunderstood." He said that Marion Square needs to be surrounded by very tall buildings and politely took jabs at the preservation groups for restricting height. He showed an image of the First Citizens Bank at the corner of Meeting and Calhoun calling it an embarrassment.
On multiple occasions, Duany mentioned the Midtown project by Neil Stevenson Architects as an admirable project. He was most pleased by the street and sidewalk dimensions, which were true to Charleston. He also liked the modern interpretation of the side porch house.
In the meeting with the architects, he challenged Tara Romano and Neil Stevenson that they were on to something and to keep it going.
College of Charleston Dorm
In his first public meeting, Duany showed this College of Charleston Dorm by LS3P. And explained that no one had taken him to see this building. Duany described that it was a successful big building.
I am tapping out. This was a very long blog, but there was a lot to cover. And little time to prepare. What's that old adage?
I would have written you a shorter blog if I only had the time.
There have been numerous followup articles posted in the Post and Courier Newspaper. Here are links to those articles: