This article was originally published on Common Edge.
In late May, my friend Witold Rybczynski published Charleston Fancy: Little Houses & Big Dreams in the Holy City (Yale University Press), about a group of architects and developers building small infill housing in Charleston, South Carolina. Having recently witnessed too much large scale development in my hometown, Boston, the topic piqued my interest so I called up Witold to talk about his new book.
Jeremiah Eck: Many years ago, I was given a fellowship in architectural school to travel to Europe; instead I bought a VW bus and traveled around the US. One of my favorite cities was Charleston, so much so that I almost settled there. I’m curious what led you to write about Charleston?
Witold Rybczynski: I first visited Charleston in 1987—I was still living in Montreal. I’ve known the people I wrote about for more than twenty years in some cases. I always thought their story, building quirky little houses in this historic city was compelling, but I couldn’t figure out how I should write about it, how to begin, what tone to take? Four years ago, I learned that something had happened to the beautiful Byzantine house that my friend George had built for himself. That gave me my first sentence: “Ten days before Christmas 2015, George Holt’s house burned down.” That got me going. After that, I just followed the story.
JE: One of the underlying themes of the book is what you describe as “locatecture.” It strikes me that many cities, even my own Boston, have benefited from that approach in the past and would be better off if they did more so now. Can you describe what that term means?
WR: It’s a corny word, but I was thinking of the common practice today of importing architectural talent—sometimes from around the world—instead of relying on architects who know their city, and who are known to their clients. Philadelphia, where I live, used to rely on local talent: Frank Furness, Wilson Eyre, Horace Trumbauer, Cope & Stewardson, Paul Cret. That’s all changed; every important building built downtown since I moved here 25 years ago has been the work of an imported architect (Viñoly, Stern, Foster, Williams & Tsien, Polshek, Pei Cobb Freed). Catering versus home cooking.
JE: A corollary to “locatecture” as clearly demonstrated in Charleston Fancy is often a more organic urban growth, growth that seems more appropriate to its context and not imposed from outside forces. Is Charleston a good example for other cities of organic growth and its many benefits for more livable cities?
WR: Downtown was virtually ignored by real estate developers in the 1960s, the period of urban renewal. Whatever building happened tended to be small-scale and piecemeal, developed locally. There were exceptions, and not everything done locally was of a high quality, but generally Charleston avoided the wholesale clearance that afflicted so many American cities during that period. No projects by I. M. Pei or Philip Johnson.
JE: As you point out, “locatecture” requires locals, often unique characters of many talents willing to take risks that many large developers wouldn’t. How did you come to know the protagonists in your book: Jerry, George, Cheryl, Andrew, Vince and Reid?
WR: Mostly serendipity. I met Vince Graham first. Shirley and I were in Beaufort, SC, and I saw an ad for his little development. Years later, in Charleston, Vince introduced me to George. I introduced George to Andrew Gould, a student of mine who was interested in Byzantine architecture, and they ended up as partners. An article I wrote about a Palladian house that George had designed for his sister, brought Reid Burgess to Charleston. That led eventually to Catfiddle Street, the group of houses downtown that is the capstone to my book.
JE: You mention in the book that large site developments often imply the assumption of large buildings. Is that assumption largely given and determined by economics and the deep pockets necessary to withstand a regulatory process that can often be drawn out over years, or are there alternative approaches that American cities could use as a model not just from Charleston but from other places here or abroad?
WR: Well-intentioned but complex regulations (environmental, health and safety, etc.) result in high up-front costs that need to be amortized, and hence they favor a) large developers, and b) large developments. Unfortunately, this is becoming the pattern in most cities, including Charleston. The kind of 1980s boot-strap operation that I describe in my book has become increasingly rare.
JE: When Andres Duany was brought in by the city of Charleston in 2015 to study their regulatory process, especially the outdated BAR (Board of Architectural Review), he pointed out that, for better or worse, all cities have a “brand” or a particular image. In our age of make-believe imagery and instant everything, can that notion potentially be dangerous if the brand isn’t based, in the first instance, on some sense of authenticity. Would you agree and how would you define the authenticity of a city?
WR: You’re right that branding can be pretty superficial. I ❤︎ New York. A few years ago Charleston was promoted as primarily a tourist city, which resulted in what many now see as excessive hotel construction. On the other hand, the arrival of Boeing to North Charleston has attracted industrial employment. And Charleston is now a city with many small high tech start-ups—nothing to do with tourism.
JE: Regarding authenticity, I described in Common Edge a road trip by car I took across the country with my daughter about a year ago and how my overwhelming impression was an increasing homogeneity of our cities and the overwhelming impact national franchised commercialism seems to have had on local environments. What lessons does Charleston have to teach us about this creeping homogeneity?
WR: In Charleston Fancy I conclude that the current building boom, dominated by very large, mixed-use projects, is a real threat to Charleston’s architectural character, which is an accumulation of small-scale, piecemeal building. I speculate that when the boom ends—as all booms eventually do—the city might return to more local, smaller-scale development. That’s not really a solution, though.
JE: I’m somewhat agnostic when it comes to style, but the constant design struggle of our time is the open animosity between a traditional or contemporary view of design. As you know, contemporary or modern architecture is often the default position for most professional design magazines and academics, but I suspect that the majority of laypeople prefer a more traditional approach. Is that your sense, and can Charleston teach us anything about how to accommodate these two positions?
WR: Do we really need to accommodate? In his public talk about BAR, Duany said that there is a place for cutting-edge modern architecture, just not in Charleston. That got a lot of applause. I tend to agree. A big city can absorb all sorts of things; a small city like Charleston, less so. I don’t think that means that everything must be colonial. Charleston is full of all sorts of buildings: Victorian, stripped Classical, even Moorish. And there are buildings of larger scales such as a cigar factory and hotels.
JE: One of my early mentors, Romaldo Giurgola, use to say he didn’t want to do beautiful buildings just good buildings. The term “beautiful” is somewhat loaded these days but I think another way of saying it is, good buildings are often better than just new or different buildings. What is your sense of the emphasis these days in architecture on new or different rather than good?
WR: “Good” is a loaded term too. I used to live in Chestnut Hill which has a Giurgola house, as well as a Venturi house and a Kahn house. None of them fit in to the neighborhood particularly well. Having said that, I’m not sure that any contemporary house would have fit in. The powerful domestic architectural language of 1910-30 is simply too prevalent and too coherent to allow for “intruders,” however interesting.
JE: Witold, there are many laypersons who might think that the story you weave of a few local Charleston entrepreneurs is interesting but largely irrelevant to their daily lives. What would you say to those who might simply say, so what?
WR: I wanted to tell the story of George and his pals because I thought it was an interesting story, and because Charleston is such an interesting place. The interplay between the people and the place was my theme. I don’t make any grander claims. The lesson, if there is one, is in a statement by one of my protagonists: Buildings and cities last a long time, so it’s worth taking the trouble when we build them.