Savannah vs. Charleston: CBS Sunday Morning considers role of contemporary architecture

From A tale of two cities at CBS Sunday Morning:

While it’s tempting to want to put these historic cities in formaldehyde, to embalm them and shun anything modern, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley says that’s not a viable answer.

“A historic city should be a living place,” Riley said. “Because if you don’t have that, then it’s a former something. A former once-great city that now is pretty to see.”

Charleston has the oldest historic district in the country. It’s carefully preserved the city’s grand public buildings, as well as the mansions along the Battery, and of course, the famous Rainbow Row.

The city’s signature, however, is the Charleston “single house” — tall, slender homes with two-tiered piazzas (we’d call them porches) that often look out over a private garden. It’s an architectural fabric that new buildings have a hard time matching.

“You know, it’s like there is this beautiful painting that has been painted and you have an opportunity to paint something within that beautiful painting,” said Riley. “You’ve got to be careful that in what you paint there, you don’t detract from the overall context of what has been created.”

There are some excellent visuals in the piece, which you can watch via the embed here (take it to full-screen and it’s better; sorry if you have to wade through a 15-second commercial):

Only two Savannahians are chosen for the interviews — architect Christian Sottile and historian John Duncan. (Great choices, and both friends of mine, I’m proud to say.) The focus of the piece doesn’t extend very deep into the real world issues we’re dealing with, but the segment provides a solid overview of the general arguments about incorporating contemporary architectural styles in cities like Savannah and Charleston that still have so much historic architecture, generally from the 19th century.

I feel like the piece would have been better if it had provided quick glimpses of other buildings in Savannah that might have seemed shockingly new for their time — including Drayton Tower, the Owens-Thomas House, and the old Greyhound station that now holds The Grey. Here’s a photo of The Grey:


I’m not going to go on and on about it here, but I do think that Savannah’s historic guidelines have led contemporary architects to follow a predictable template for new construction — they end up designing buildings that they know can be approved rather than exploring boundaries.

At the end of the day, Charleston seems to have a similar problem, as noted in the segment regarding the controversy over a proposed and later scrapped contemporary design for Clemson’s School of Architecture building in Charleston.