Good architecture needs to do a lot of things at once. It’s not enough for a building to be merely useful to its owner, or to be solidly and sustainably built for future owners, or to be a pretty edifice for the public to enjoy, or to contribute something new and meaningful as a work of art. It must do all of these things, and do all of them really well.
Charleston is a city of good buildings. Each of our historic structures has the beauty and good design to adapt to changing needs, to serve new purposes, and to still delight the eyes of historians and laymen alike. But the city is more than a concentration of good buildings. The whole city is a work of art — it is the collective effort, through centuries, of politicians, clients, architects and builders, and all the craftsmen, free and enslaved, who worked for them. They worked to build a city with a special beauty that is like no other. Though they worked in different eras and in different architectural styles, they built their buildings true to their place, true to the local climate and culture, and respectful of the built aesthetic developed by those who came before them. As a result, the architecture of our city speaks with a common voice.
These days there is much talk of the city changing, that it needs to evolve, adapt to modern needs. True enough, as it always has been. But how can we change a city which is also a work of art? In the past, people were more comfortable changing works of art. Famous old buildings were remodeled and updated. Michelangelo’s David had a fig leaf added. Nowadays we wouldn’t do that. We conserve historic artworks exactly as they were meant to be. We categorize them as something quite apart from the practical things of normal life. There is good reason for this, and it works well in museums, and even in museum towns like Colonial Williamsburg. But Charleston can’t be a museum. People need to live and work here, and we need to build new buildings where we can fit them.
Some would say we should compartmentalize the old and the new as completely different phenomena — judge them according to different philosophies. Preserve the old buildings as petrified relics of another time, well-appointed with competing placards informing us of the great men who built them and the oppressed enslaved people who actually built them. Our new buildings, however, shall be quite different. They shall express our enthusiastic membership in the Modern Age by using a style of architecture that originated in prewar Germany. Virtue signaling with this alien style, we will prove that we are not like our quaint and villainous ancestors, but are practical, enlightened citizens of the smartphone era.
Some of these modernistic buildings may even be pretty good buildings. They serve the economic needs of the modern city, and they may even be beautiful in their way. But Charleston has more than political and economic needs. Our city is a work of art, and it needs buildings that contribute, not detract, from its unique and precious aesthetic.
Is it right to say that modern buildings need only fulfill some of the requirements of good architecture, but need not fulfill that most ancient of civic virtues — contributing to the common vision of the city beautiful? I feel that this shortchanges modern architects. It lets them off easy. In the past, people had to work together to create buildings that everyone agreed were good to live with. That was hard. Art was a serious matter. Nowadays it doesn’t matter if people like new buildings. They make a profit. They’re energy efficient. So what if they don’t really please anyone? The modernist philosophy grants them a pass.
I don’t subscribe to that. I believe that our city is still a work of art in progress, and that each new building has the opportunity to contribute — to make Charleston an even better Charleston than it was. This doesn’t mean I must copy old buildings. To do so would also be a failure of artisty, as I wouldn’t be contributing anything new. It doesn’t even mean I must work in a specific historical style. Charleston offers examples of many styles, even eccentric ones, fitting gracefully into the cityscape. But it does mean that my work is rooted in traditional patterns of materials, proportions and details, so that it sings a tune that can harmonize with the song of our old buildings. I have no wish to disrupt the wonderful beauty of our city, but to embrace it as my own, to learn its melodies, and to add my voice to its chorus.
Andrew Gould lives in downtown Charleston and has degrees and architecture and art history. He specializes in the design of infill housing and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and writes regularly for the Orthodox Arts Journal. Learn more at newworldbyzantine.com.