This is part 2 of Architects In a Cafe Getting Beer with architect Jay White. If you haven't read Part 1, I'd suggest you check that out first.
If you liked Part 1 then you will like Part 2 even better. In this blog we dig into Jay's Role on the BAR, we talk about the presence of contemporary architecture in Charleston and the controversial Spaulding Paoluzzi Center, as well as, Jay's thoughts on the dreaded big building phenomenon in Charleston. We also hear about Jay's most memorable project and finally figure out how Jay earned a 72% in 12th grade gym class. Enjoy!
In Part 1 we ended with:
Steve: A good response. And a good segue into the BAR (City of Charleston Board of Architectural Review). You have been on there for about 4 years?
Jay: Yeah….I’m going to need another beer before the next one. You want one?
S: Yes, please.
Jay returns with beer.
J: I have been on the BAR for 4 years. And the only reason I can keep track of it because it has been exactly 4 years since my son Leland’s due date. And he was 4 days late. So he hadn’t arrived yet. My wife Amelia who had at one time worked in the planning office of the city knew a lot of those folks to a degree. She came to my first meeting and sat in the front row. So she was 9+ months pregnant.
It was a little bit of an icebreaker because I was like “hey I may need to leave at any moment, because my son is due……...now.”
S: So your son was at your first BAR meeting?
J: Yes he was. In utero.
Well a lot of people ask, “well how the hell did you get on the board?”
The weird part is that I actually asked. I was talking to Dennis Dowd (City of Charleston City Architect) at one point and I was talking about a project I was working on. And I happened to say, “I’d be interested in doing that some day.” And as it happened, maybe 3 days prior, Chris Schmitt had called Dennis and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” (the BAR) So I ended up taking up the remainder of Chris Schmitt’s term.
And before the BAR split at the beginning of this past year, that meant that I was technically eligible for up to 11 years of continuous service on the BAR. Because I could finish up his term and I am then eligible for (2) 4 year terms after that. Now I am not sure what I am eligible for, but it is probably close to the same thing.
Unless people at the City Hall wise up and find somebody better.
It’s been an interesting time.
I was recently talking to Will Evans. Will Evans of Evans and Schmidt Architects. He is retired now, but Will and I were talking because he was at one point an alternate member on the BAR. And we were sitting next to each other.
Will had served full time on the board in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. And they were meeting on a weekly basis because of the extensive repair work that was going on.
But it was a very different context. The amount of work and pressure and pace seemed really familiar to me, but what was very different is that he was dealing with much more difficult situations.
For example: Here is an African American family living on Anson Street and they lost their terne metal roof in the hurricane. And they are really having trouble finding the means to repair. They were underinsured and they didn’t have the means to meet the BAR’s expectations.
And he said that was a really difficult time. You were faced with people that really had true hardships.
Today we have a similar pace and a fanatic throughput at the BAR. That has been mitigated a lot by the fact that the BAR has been split. We don’t have those 11pm meetings any more now that we have the Big Building BAR and the Small Building BAR. I think that has been a great change.
The big difference between what Will Evans and his contemporaries went through in 1989 versus today is that now I find that I am hard pressed to find the same sort of economic hardship expressed by applicants who happened to be developing in probably the hottest real estate market in the southeast. And one of the hottest markets in the nation.
Even if they are from Poughkeepsie, New York, they walk into it with the full expectation of what the BAR is about. Because nobody that invests that level of money walks into it blind. They know what they are dealing with.
They know that the reason the real estate values are what they are here today is because of the constraints that the BAR has imposed on the city, and the expectations of a level of quality that were especially acute during the Riley administration. It is a known thing.
I think what that means to me is that in most cases I think that the board has remained acutely aware of quality, period. And you don’t want to incur senseless costs, but at the same time if you say it was going to be a cast stone coping and now it is going to be a prefabricated aluminum coping, don’t tell me you did if for design reasons. I know better. I know better. And everybody else in the room knows better.
I can’t really imagine what it would be like, and maybe I’ll find out. Barring some terrible disaster I may never know what Will went through, having to deal with someone that simply didn’t have the resources to meet the cities obligations to the historic ordinance.
S: Do you think it is possible to do a legitimate contemporary piece of architecture in the Historic District? An example being the proposed Clemson Architectural Center. (The Spaulding Paolozzi Center: The proposed home for Clemson University’s School of Architecture and the Historic Preservation Program at the College of Charleston.)
S: As in, it’s contemporary. It’s not a blend.
J: You mean it is not what people in the furniture world people refer to as transitional?
J: (Chuckles) Yeah. And if you talk to most educated preservationist they would say absolutely yes. The reason is that there is a long standing premise in preservation theology that says that you want differentiation. And you don’t want to fossilize cities.
Jane Jacobs is quoted about this a lot, and misinterpreted about this a lot. She didn’t have some over-arching beaf with modernist architecture.
I think that we as preservationist have a big job ahead of us to bridge the gap between academic understandings of preservation and the lay communities understanding of preservation.
Because a lot of folks in the lay community get involved with preservation because they actually just like traditional architecture. They just like it better. They prefer it. For a lot of valid reasons.
But that is not a preservation philosophy.
Our BAR ordinance is not founded on a traditionalist architecture philosophy. It is not a New Urbanist structure. It is a preservation ordinance.
So long as it remains a preservation ordinance, it does allow (other styles).
I had no problem when we supported the Spaulding Paolozzi Center. I had no problem supporting it on purely preservationist grounds. It wasn’t about, “Oh God this building is cool. I can't wait to see this big white hunk of concrete.” It was like most of the time when I’m dealing with a sensitive BAR application, you have to keep very close to a solid interpretation of the ordinance and the planning documents.
It is not really a popularity contest. It is not a mob rule thing. With the Spaulding Paolozzi Center I was looking back at our preservation ordinance. I was looking back at our Century 21 Plan. And that is what we were basing it off of. If somebody else came up with some highly contemporary building, that is what I would judge it with.
S: Good answer! This is something that we struggle with at our office. (LS3P)
J: It has been a chilling effect. I won’t deny that. A lot of owners are concerned that they don’t want to be the next one, so they pull back. We have had that happen with clients already. They say, “we don’t want to be the subject of the next massive mob riot. Torches, pitchforks and lawyers. So tone it down buddy!”
S: People are asking, “why do all of these new projects look the same.” It is because everybody is doing transitional architecture. Me included. When you have a starchitect (Brad Cloepfil, Allied Works) come into town and he got his design approved. Lawsuits were filed and he is run out of town. It is only natural that people get scared. Somebody dipped their toes in and…
J: Found the water was too hot.
S: And that was a unique project. That was an architecture school. So they had even more of an excuse to be ‘of its time.’
J: Right. Well there are other portions of the city where they are not necessarily going to fight with the same resistance. Such as the stuff happening in the upper peninsulas, NOMO and Half Mile North. They don’t face the same types of constraints.
J: And even south of Calhoun Street it is entirely possible.
You know who did it better than anybody else was W.G. Clarke. Because he adopted enough of the materials and textural familiarities of the historic city. And just really bent it to his will.
If you go through his tiny little additions downtown, they are not apologetic in any sense.
S: They are also somewhat concealed.
J: They are, or on a smaller street. They are also not exuberant. That is something that people often forget about good architecture. Good architecture is not always automatically exuberant.
The Spaulding Paolozzi design was a very exuberant design. Maybe not by the measure of Allied Works overall portfolio, but compared to other buildings it was fairly exuberant. You know?
There is still plenty of work out there that is quiet and both beautiful. And by whatever yardstick you want to use, it is unapologetically of our time. The addition to Gage Hall….Not Gage Hall, sorry.
S: The Circular Church?
J: Yeah. The Circular Church. Of course, it is not in your face on the street either. But if it was, would it have made that big of a difference? It is a soft warm, beautiful, fine detailed, appropriately scaled thing, that I don’t think it would have had a problem if they wanted to build it on Tradd Street.
I think the main difference between historic buildings and new buildings tends to be the unavoidable shift in scale.
And the technology that we use. 200 years ago you just simply couldn’t span 50’ unless you had a big ole’ truss. Now you do it in 18 inches. And that is the difference. The scale of our buildings are drastically larger than the scale of our buildings 100 years ago, 200 years ago.
And it doesn’t matter what style you paint on the façade.
The building’s that y’all have done in the Meeting and King Street Spine where the city has said that you can do bigger buildings, you still get pushback. Because you have an 80’ tall building.
S: You know what I find to be our biggest design challenge? It is not height. I feel like we have moved past height a little bit…It is more dealing with.......
J: Well we haven’t moved past height on one? (Referring to the Sergeant Jasper project)
S: Well that one is pretty extreme. (Sergeant Jasper) The real challenge are buildings 3 times longer than they are tall. Dealing with a block long façade.
That is a real challenge. And you know the deal...there is the breaking it up into small buildings thing.....
S: That seems to be the ingredient of choice. That is what everybody is doing. There is this fear of doing something horizontally. We were just talking about it in the office today. To me it is less about dealing with height now. It is dealing with buildings that are almost the equivalent of a city block. If you look at Paris, that is almost their entire city. Block long facades. They don’t have hyphens everywhere and they have survived. I think we are a little hyphen happy in Charleston.
J: We are a little hyphen crazy.
S: I’d like to reduce the hyphen intake.
J: I think you are right. We have stopped the madness in our studio. We have been working on a project in our studio that is about a football field long. And the first inclination was to break up the façade to disguise its length. And we finally said, "you know what, this building is just about as long as the center mass portion of the cigar factory. And as you stand at the cigar factory you never thought, holy shit that thing is too long.” You don’t. Because what they did when they developed the architecture is that they developed it with that length in mind.
You can go to places like London and Paris and see buildings that are that long. What they did is that they took advantage of the repetition and the coursing that type of length provides you.
When you think about it you just don’t get that type of opportunity very much.
A lot of times people will look through what has been done at past BAR meetings and they will think “that is what we have to do.” That is not true. The BAR has been very well trained to disavow any precedent accumulation. If somebody comes to us with a well developed design that is 300’ long that doesn’t pretend to be 40 different buildings along the way....that is not necessarily bad.
And I know that you have fought that battle and lost. But there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Especially if you start that thought process from the sidewalk.
One of the things that we do with our studio when we are dealing with buildings with length in an urban environment is that we really try to not look at the elevations much. We look at close in, very closely cropped street level sidewalk perspectives.
And how does that rhythm develop? And is it beautiful?
S: Reflecting on your experiences, what is an example of a project that you are really proud of, and what are some failures that you have had, or things that you’ve looked back and said, “man I was a knuckle head!”
J: (Chuckles and then pauses) One of the projects that I am really most proud of was……..we were working with Old Bethel United Methodist about 15 years ago. It was really one of my first projects when I started at Liollio.
They had gotten a grant from the Catholic Sisters of Charity to improve the accessibility of their sanctuary. This is one of the oldest African American congregations in the city. They actually inhabit the 3rd oldest house of worship in the entire city. And it is on Calhoun near the intersection of Calhoun and Pitt.
S: Does it have a Greek Temple Façade?
J: It does. And that façade came later. Because what happened was, back before the Civil War, the congregation of Bethel United Methodist set out to build their new sanctuary where it is now. And they provided the existing meeting house to the enslaved members of the congregation and they rolled it across the street on Palmetto logs and put it on the site where it is now. And they added that neoclassical portico to it.
It was originally just a little meeting house. If you strip that portico off you see a very early colonial era meeting house. Very basic form.
S: So it is the ‘decorated shed.”
J: Pretty much. And so it is an extremely significant building and they wanted to add a handicap ramp on it. And we kept looking at it and thinking that “you are going to have all of these pickets and railings everywhere.”
Then we realized that they had this side yard on the west side that led to this door to their sanctuary. I was flipping through ADA standards and I realized that if it was a 1:20 slope then it is not a ramp and we don’t need handrails. And there was plenty of space in their side yard to have a 1:20 slope.
So we built these two little concrete walls that lift the entire side yard up. And they led to the accessible entrance.
And the beauty of it was that it was about as non-architectural of a response that we could find.
Because I think the vast majority of the people that walk by the building, they never notice that walk way.
The design is as subliminal as you can make it.
S: So your favorite project is a ramp? I like that.
J: Yeah. The really awkward thing is that we got a design award for the thing.
S: Really…and that's all it was….a ramp?
J: That’s all it was. We said: "we are going to do as little as architecture as possible."
I think that generally speaking, what we as architects undervalue is the option of not building.
We could have probably dumped a ton of time and effort into designing an exquisite ramp and guard rail systems that would have been really cool. But that’s really not what was needed.
So a lot of times we have this attitude that when we are developing a design, we are looking for the most reductive solution and then as we are looking at the design as it develops we have this kind of joke that “if your looking at the model of a design and that if you could take your middle finger and thumb and just flick that part off of the model, than it doesn’t need to be there.”
If it is not integral to the design then it probably really isn’t important yet. And it is very highly subject to value engineering.
If you can pop it off, then just take it off. So that is a lot of what we do.
S: ...and how about those failures?
J: The definitive moment where I really made a mess of things, that is hard to answer. Because there are too many options. I don’t know.
It might be hard for me to isolate this to a specific example. But internally within our own studio we are fairly multi-generational. We probably have 4 generations in the office. It is still a relatively tight studio. We are all very close.
And I think that any time I really felt like I really screwed up was probably some time where I didn’t really understand the power of my words.
With the tenure that I have and the position that I have. Folks start listening to you differently.
And it is not just your peers, the people that are your contemporaries, who are starting to see you differently. Because of the way that you have progressed in your career vs. their career. But people that are 10-15 years younger than you are going to hear your words and interpret your words through a lens of their understanding of who you are. Not who you think you are, but who they think you are. Now that’s different.
Especially if you’ve changed…if you have grown a lot in a short time period. There is a gap between the way you see yourself and the way everybody else is seeing you.
And when you open your mouth and start talking. There’s a gap of interpretation between what you thought you said and what they heard you say.
If you’re just kind of casually joking and kind of flippant about something that is actually important. But you know it is important but you are trying to make light of it because you don’t want to over emphasize it. Well somebody else in the room just heard an associate principal in the room just completely dismiss the importance of a monumentally significant aspect of the job.
“Well Ramos just told me that I didn’t have to develop 3 schemes because it is always a bad idea to talk to a client about 3 schemes and we should just go in there with the 1 scheme that we think is the most important."
But the project manager that you were playing and talking to, it’s their intern who is working on the project who heard you say that. And now the project manager is trying to say, “no we committed to showing 3 basic site concepts.” Now that project manager is going to struggle to try to regain control of the project.
So all of my screw ups have almost always been an interpretation gap. It's communication.
A gap between what I thought I was saying and what people thought I was saying. Because I don’t always understand how they see me.
How’s that for a circuitous answer?
S: Yeah….a good one though.
S: Are you much of a reader?
J: Yeah……yeah, yeah.
S: What is a book that you would recommend?
J: (Thinks for a moment)………………You know what would be helpful for a lot of architects who are in positions…like you are...where you are subject to political influence and public influence and you are a shaper of public influence?
There is this book called Meditations by Marcus Aurelious. And it is the kind of book that you digest in small bites. You don't have to read it cover to cover. It is a translated collection of 'notes to self,' from a Roman Emperor of that name.
I found it because there are a lot of political figures that you have heard of who have found that to be a constant resource. They go back and read and reread that book. To remind themselves.
It reads a little bit like the Book of Psalms. But it's not, it is not a religious work. Although he does have a Roman mindset so he is speaking in terms of what we might call Roman Mythology.
I’ve been reading John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture. There is also a book published a few years ago that is a transcript of lectures that Rem Koolhaas gave called Preservation is Overtaking Us. You have probably seen that one. It is a short one and is very dense. As is all of Kookhaas’s work.
I started re-reading some Jane Jacobs. I am hoping to pull that into a class we are teaching at Clemson in the fall.
We don’t have a TV, so I end up either wasting a shit-ton of time on Facebook or I do something constructive….like reading a book.
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S: Last question. I read in your linkedin bio that in May of 1995 you scored a 72% in your 12th grade PE Class. Very close to a D. What’s the deal? I notice you didn’t mention that as a failure?
J: It actually was a triumph. I had a pretty good GPA. I had gotten accepted into Auburn half-way through 11th grade. And I knew that I was going there. No doubt about it.
So I really didn’t care to dress out and play pick-up basketball for an hour everyday. So I just would kind of....not participate. Rather than create some sort of big conflict in school the football coach who had already written me off long ago just gave me a 72.
I was maybe a wee-bit more rebellious at an earlier point in my life.
Steve's Wrap Up
I really enjoyed my conversation with Jay. Unfortunately, most of our previous interactions are at the BAR. In those cases there is a table between us. I am giving a presentation, typically with a little perspiration on my brow and then nervously awaiting my verdict.
If Jay likes the project, speaks positively about it and the BAR meeting goes well then I am thinking...."that Jay White is a smart guy...and such a gentlemen..a real peach!"
If Jay is not pleased with the project and the meeting goes south then I'm like, "that son of a b@#%$!" JK...You know I would never........
So it was good to have a casual conversation outside the realms of the BAR.
Three big takeaways for me.
#1 - Favorite quote, "The most frustrating thing in the world is having an immense talent that is trapped inside an asshole’s body. You just can’t get it out. " That is just a hilarious thing to say. And it's funny cuz it's true.
#2 - A greater appreciation for the BAR process. The BAR and City Staff have been under intense scrutiny as development on the peninsula has escalated. It is easy to forget that the board is a group of volunteers and that the staff is overworked. In addition, this interview helped highlight for me the intense amount of pressure and responsibility that this group has to deal with. The story about Will Evans post Hurricane Hugo was an eye-opener.
#3 - The fact that Jay's most memorable project was a ramp for a historic church says something about this guy. I think that a great architect is one that comes up with the best solution to their client's problem. The idea of a non-architectural response is so simple and so sophisticated. It should also be noted that Jay mentioned that this project was done 15 years ago. He has done a ton of award-winning work since that time. For example Founders Hall at Charles Towne Landing, which in my opinion is one of the best contemporary buildings in Charleston.
So who's next?
I have a wish list of other architects that I plan on interviewing over a cup of joe, but I'd love to hear from you. Holla at me!