Facing the flood of spectacle in Charleston buildings 

Great Equalizer

click to enlarge RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

Charleston needs a prominent, good modern building that speaks to the area's collective imagination and aspirations. Given where we are — surrounded by the latest mediocre examples of cookie-cutter hotels and apartment buildings — it can seem a stretch even among those of us determined to make a go of it. But let's take a look at where we are for a moment, shadowing a rather narrow real estate perspective that some would argue is "timeless."

You may have noticed an odd clock tower as you arrive on I-26, signaling a recently completed Janus of a building. It doesn't look to the past and the future per se, but possesses two distinct faces nonetheless, rather like an elaborate Broadway stage set.

Below that clocktower is one face (which doesn't in fact face the street) presenting itself as an "artifact" of a dreamt up industrial past. This is certainly not a familiar idiom in Charleston but you were not supposed to notice that (it was courtesy of planner Andreas Duany who thought that industrial buildings would be good models for big buildings in Charleston). Just relax and imagine those daylight expanses full of happy workers, dawn-to-dusk toiling away at their repetitive duties under the watchful eye of their benevolent master [sic] boss.

The other visage serves up every trope of aristocratic privilege that New York-based architect Robert Stern could muster — from turrets to columns to quoins — done up in dressed stone (or faux dressed stone if you look above the first floor). It is difficult for me not to pause, given that all of its symmetrical grandeur looks out (greedily?) over the gentrification potential of Charleston's East Side.

This presents us with the ideal example of what French philosopher Guy Debord described in his 1967 Society of the Spectacle. He proposed that in modern society the authentic social life has been systematically replaced by its representation, or spectacle. Furthermore, "...the spectacle is the ruling order's non-stop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait ... of all aspects of life ..." In our age, unlike any other time in history, Debord posits, the visual is much more important, alas, than the tactile.

This disconnect between the visual and the tactile lies at the heart of some of the issues that affect architecture in Charleston today. The city has always been a bit susceptible to this notion. Style underpins the mythology and has always been a bludgeon here, dictating status and privilege. It is no coincidence that following defeat in the Civil War, it did not take Lowcountry plantation owners long to find a way to spin a tale of aristocratic leisure to lure northern industrialists in for a few days of successful hunting and fishing led by former slaves. How quaint? And, with Charleston determined to reel in the luxe traveler in 2019, it is no wonder that columns, quoins, red pants, and acanthus leaves remain appealing. Never mind that Instagram makes this an imperative.

What is at issue is that we are unable to live a history, to create something out of this moment that signifies our entire city's participation. Some argue that the historic district is special; but, must it be embalmed? What would have been the evolution of architecture here had the freed slave population actually endured as equals to the white population, rich and poor? Those in power, here and elsewhere, have used the last 150 years to ensure that a diverse, fully conscious kind of expression is not attractive or acceptable. It might (shocker) be too provocative. But, of course, then there is the great equalizer — flooding.

Whitney Powers is an architect who operates Studio A, Inc. in Charleston.

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