JAN. 23, 2015 | RICHARD FAUSSET
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The elegant buildings from different eras strut across Charleston’s downtown neighborhoods like notes on a major scale: the Gothic churches, the Greek Revival storefronts, the homes in vivid pastels exuding Queen Anne grace, Georgian symmetry and Italianate grandeur.
But these are days of bum notes and dissonance in historic Charleston, which is enjoying a robust economy and one of the most transformative regional population booms since the Civil War. Long accustomed to basing its reputation on the grandeur of its old buildings, the city now finds it almost impossible to agree on how to build new ones.
In recent months, traditionalists have blocked efforts to introduce contemporary architecture in the historic core, which was the first in the nation to be covered by a preservation ordinance.
Modernists are rolling their eyes at new buildings that copy traditional styles, arguing that they pervert a record of architectural progress long documented in mortar and stone.
And both sides agree that many of the buildings approved by the city’s Board of Architectural Review in recent years have been duds that tried, and failed, to have it both ways.
“Well, they’re just not beautiful,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., said of the new buildings in an interview at Charleston City Hall, which was completed in 1804 and is attributed to a local architect, Gabriel Manigault. “The materials, the execution — you don’t feel excellence there. They’re not special. You don’t walk by and say, ‘I’m glad that got built.’”
Such problems may seem trivial to the Detroits of the world, and reflect more universal tensions in the realms of architecture and historic preservation. But they are particularly acute in Charleston, where new arrivals and a diverse economy threaten to transform a merely beautiful metropolis into an economically important one.
The resurgence of greater Charleston as an economic power, with its bustling port and a proliferation of new manufacturing plants — led by the Boeing facility that produces the 787 Dreamliner airplane — has fueled a residential and commercial building boom. The population of the three-county metro area has grown 11 percent in the last five years, according to the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.
At the same time, the essential $2.8 billion tourism sector lives or dies on the city’s ability to remain charming.
“Charleston is a city that looks back, and rarely does the city look forward, because so much of what the city is, is steeped in what it has been,” said Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center here.
But with the new growth pressure, Mr. Huff said, “We can’t be the slow-paced, sleepy town that I grew up in anymore.”
No one is more aware of these realities than Mayor Riley, a slight, formal, bespectacled man who, in his nearly 40 years in office, has established himself as something of an aesthete-in-chief. Many here credit the mayor with wisely shepherding Charleston through its recent renaissance with an emphasis on the importance of shared public spaces.
In conversation, he is prone to speaking in the language of design, criticizing as extraneous the light-blocking louvers of one downtown building, while praising the “void-to-solid ratio” of another.
Details of the Palmer House, left, and Victorian style architecture in Charleston's historic district.CreditStephen Morton for The New York Times
Mr. Riley, 72, has promised that this year will be his last in office, and in what many here view as a legacy move, he has prodded the city to hire Andrés Duany, a Miami-based architect and urban planner, to suggest changes to the city’s architectural review process.
“The question really is, how does a building enhance the city?” the mayor said. “How does it enhance the street?”
Charleston is a city of 128,000 people, but locals are quick to note that it was the fourth-largest port city in the Colonies in 1770, and many of its finest 18th- and 19th-century buildings were built with money from the trade of indigo, rice and slaves.
That sense of self-importance did not waver as other cities surpassed it. Indeed, it may have been bolstered after Charleston emerged from the 20th-century era of urban renewal with its historic core largely intact. The historic downtown neighborhoods have been further burnished by waves of wealthy newcomers who have lovingly restored many old homes — while sending real estate prices soaring.
Beyond the center, greater Charleston has its share of unremarkable suburban development. But aesthetics and the built environment remain central to the civic conversation.
On a recent afternoon, Robert Behre, the architecture columnist for The Post and Courier of Charleston, drove through downtown, pointing out newish anonymous buildings that could have been built in Atlanta or Orange County, Calif., the ungainly new government buildings, and the dull boxes dressed up with the occasional row of columns.
“It’s not blatantly bad,” he said. “It’s just kind of meh.”
New buildings proposed for the historic district must be approved by the Board of Architectural Review, but it does not dictate a specific architectural style. Critics of newer buildings offer a range of theories as to why they fail to impress, from the need to build in hurricane- and earthquake-resistant features that eat up construction budgets, to the suspicion that builders prefer to submit the designs that are least likely to provoke or offend.
The hiring of Mr. Duany, who could not be reached for comment for this article, has only stirred more controversy. He is a leading proponent of the New Urbanism, the idea that neighborhoods should be dense and walkable. His best-known project, the planned community of Seaside, Fla., was the backdrop for the 1998 film “The Truman Show.” And unfairly or not, there is a lingering concern among critics here that Mr. Duany will impose a movie-set uniformity in Charleston.
“That’s what gives me great pause in a city like Charleston, because the city is so diverse, and presents so many eras and fashions,” said Whitney Powers, a local architect.
In November, the Clemson Architecture Center, an outpost of the upstate university, withdrew plans for an ultramodern building in the heart of the historic district designed by the contemporary architect Brad Cloepfil.
Preservation and neighborhood groups sued to stop it on procedural grounds. But the opposition was also driven, in part, by a philosophical aversion to contemporary architecture in the city core: Harry B. Limehouse III, a Republican state representative, likened the concrete, glass and aluminum design to a sardine can.
The city, meanwhile, is nearing completion of a $142 million renovation of an auditorium and office building called the Gaillard Center that is heavy on limestone and neo-Classical columns.
“It’s going to be beautiful, cherished and loved 100 years from now,” Mayor Riley said.
The mayor is among those who believe that contemporary architecture also has its place in Charleston — he noted that a planned International African American Museum would have a contemporary design — but he is aware that he has constituents who are still wary of advances in architecture from about 1919 on.
Among them is Reid Burgess, a designer of traditional houses. The Clemson building, Mr. Burgess argued, was a “parasite” that took advantage of its location to draw attention.
For the Gaillard, Mr. Burgess had nothing but praise. Even if it eventually goes to seed, he said, “It’ll look like a beautiful ruin.”