Those driving into or out of Charleston might have noticed a new building sort of messing with them.
East Central Lofts, a new four-story brick and metal apartment building, sits at 274 Huger Street but is probably noticed far more by motorists traversing the spaghetti between Interstate 26 and the Ravenel Bridge.
Christian Sottile of Savannah-based Sottile & Sottile architects says the building took the shape it did because it had to fit into two contexts: Huger Street and the freeways flying above it.
“The highway wraps around the building,” he says. “The building and the highway are sort of dancing with each other.”
Specifically, the parts of the building closest to passing cars have a scattered, apparently random window pattern that minimizes noise and loss of privacy. And it also has two large copper-clad windows, which Sottile dubs “monocles,” that spy wryly at passing traffic. And one corner is chamfered where a ramp passes close by.
In many cities, motorists whiz by the upper floors of old architecture. One prime example can be seen by those crossing the James River to enter downtown Richmond, Va., on Interstate 95.
“You feel something really wrong has happened to these buildings,” Sottile says. “They’re scared in some way or they’re vulnerable in some way.”
By contrast, he says, East Central Lofts “knows the highway is there and it’s pushing back. It wants to confuse you a little bit. We wanted this building to send a complicated message to the motorist as you’re passing by. It’s not going to reveal all its secrets. It’s messing with you.”
The building also gets away with one of the biggest signs ever allowed in peninsula Charleston: an “East Central” mural painted by David Boatwright.
While its lettering is crisp and new, Boatwright has used a touch of yellow to make it look a little aged, harking to a time when more buildings were painted.
“The large East Central sign makes the point this is a historic neighborhood of Charleston,” Sottile says. “It’s less that ‘This is East Central Lofts’ and more that this is the East Central neighborhood.”
Sottile also designed One Cool Blow, the mostly residential complex a few blocks to the northeast.
Both Cool Blow and East Central sport strong vertical design elements, as does the other very visible building in this area, the 1980 office building at 960 Morrison Drive.
“The design process in a lot of ways was similar,” Sottile says of the two.
“We spent a lot of time looking carefully at the context, the history of the area and the development of streets over time,” he says.
Sottile’s local partner was MacMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, and architect Eddie Bello says the lofts themselves range from a small studio size to two bedrooms, and every one of its 74 units has a tall ceiling and a large expanse of glass along one wall, similar to what’s often found in an old industrial building.
“This project is avant garde from a programming standpoint. It offers that compact urban loft,” Sottile adds.
“It puts Charleston in a class of cities like New York and San Francisco that are exploring the idea of micro-lofts as a strategy for urban living.”
One day, the building may be even more successful in relating to its other context, Huger Street, though it may take time.
True, the project should get credit for adding a curb, street lawn and trees and a new sidewalk where none had existed. And it should get credit for tucking all the auto parking around back, away from the street.
Still, those currently walking by will see little other than a few doors and bike racks behind a glass window.
Bello says this ground-floor space is designed to house some combination of small shops and offices, but they aren’t finished because developers decided the demand isn’t there.
Once those spaces are filled, the building, and its immediate neighborhood, will rise to a new level.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or rbehre@post andcourier.com.