It takes little imagination to sense the tension building in Charleston. The Holy City is not immune to some of the same dichotomies that infect the culture at large — tradition versus change, future versus past, rich versus poor, young versus old, black versus white. Power smirks at the plebeians. At the national and state levels, compromise is crippled by the perceived distance between the interests and needs of individuals, and the constructs, whether governmental largesse or corporate enterprise, that can successfully address those interests and needs. At the local level the issues tend to be far more practical — potholes, flooding, public access, preservation.
The Charleston region’s future is confronting this practical-minded concern. For years, Charleston’s salvation seemed to lie in the balance between the image of the city and how that image played into the value of its real estate. The model served the city well to a degree as property values rose and a tourism monoculture gave rise to popular restaurants and an incentive to keep up, or “beautify,” Charleston. But this model often fell flat on the side of good-paying jobs for young professionals and families. Through the years, I’ve often encountered or been directed to any number of former residents of Charleston who enjoy remarkable success elsewhere and who generally bemoan the lack of opportunities in their hometown.
An interesting divergence from this model is occurring, however. The perception that Charleston is one of the so-called Next Cities — one of the top towns for talented, young workers — highlights the Holy City’s potential, but it also underscores the fragility of this position. In order to attract and keep talent between the ages of 20-40, Charleston must compete for and invest in the intellectual and creative capital required for the city’s future. Being responsive to this population means addressing its interests and needs: cost of lifestyle, earning potential, vitality, after-hours entertainment, education, transportation, and diversity.
And that means accepting the resiliency of Charleston’s urban fabric, extending it, and weaving new and invigorating examples of architecture, art, and public spaces into it, to validate the interests, needs, and desires of our next generation. It means finding ways to not only link the internal neighborhoods of the region, but to extend those connections further to access opportunities for recreation and leisure in the larger panoply of the city. This is precisely the mode that has characterized the most successful periods in Charleston’s history and can be seen in the architecture borne of the tastes and sensibilities of various modes and times.
This raises the question of the appropriateness of the proposed Clemson Architecture Center, and, more importantly, the manner in which this building signals the tenor of our time. Architecturally, if the center is built in its current form, it will enter the canon of the Charleston’s architectural history as a direct manifestation of the cultural shift that is currently in motion, an appeal to the next generation and its vision for success in Charleston. The building seeks a deeper significance in the city than merely the superficiality of style, or gable roofs or multi-paned wood windows. It is, first and foremost, a suitably scaled building linked to the historic context by its ability to connect interior spaces with outdoor ones, to provide engagement at the street level, and to respond in a remarkable, physical manner with the natural energies of our locale. More importantly, it should inspire even more appropriate contemporary buildings in our city.
To reject the building as stylistically incompatible with the city is to reject Charleston’s history in general, a history that is architecturally diverse, illustrative of wide-ranging styles and individual egos. Buildings in this city show a remarkable tolerance for differences and inventiveness of expression — synagogues, cathedrals, and churches adjoined, cast iron curtain walls alongside wooden shops, and temple-fronted mansions surrounded by a simple wooden single houses with their common side porches, or piazzas. And it is much more substantial than the ostensibly stylistic charges that echo from the cheeky bourgeoisie.
Whitney Powers has practiced architecture, parenting, and downtown living in Charleston for a long time.