One of the nation’s leading voices for classical architecture is looking to expand its presence in Charleston, a city whose surviving historic buildings are considered one of the nation’s premier examples of this tradition.
The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, a New York-based nonprofit, threw a big party here last week to celebrate the publication of the 13th edition of "Classicist," which takes a deep dive into the South’s architectural tradition.
There’s a piece on Charleston by College of Charleston architectural historian Nathaniel Walker, who traces the rise of the city’s cosmopolitan classicism, its recession as the Civil War approached, and its gradual re-emergence with the works of Albert Simons and, most recently, the Gaillard Center.
David Gobel of the Savannah College of Art and Design pens a piece on the porch as a quintessential feature of Southern architecture, from its grandest monuments such as U.S. Custom Houses to its most humble dwellings, such as slave cottages.
“Be it with ‘lofty pillared portico’ or with ‘little posts like candles,’ the Southern porch has stood and stands to this day as, perhaps, the greatest contribution of the American South to the classical tradition in architecture,” Gobel’s essay concludes.
So perhaps it was fitting that the party was held at the Roper House on East Battery, whose five two-story Ionic columns make for one of Charleston’s most dramatic porches.
The house is the Charleston home of financier and philanthropist Richard Jenrette, and it’s also a museum property of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust, which cosponsored the event. It’s among several local buildings featured in the Classicist.
Peter Lyden, the ICAA president, says this is the book's first regional focus, and “It is really a celebration of what is best about the South.”
While Charleston’s repository of rich classical architecture is unquestioned, the ICAA’s Southeastern chapter (one of 13 chapters across the country) is based in Atlanta. The event here was aimed to deepen its ties here, says Richard McGovern, ICAA’s marketing and digital communications manager.
The association not only publishes "Classicist" and advocates for the classical tradition but it also holds educational and awards programs to advance its cause.
“We’re really showing that it’s really important to build beautiful buildings and places and that these things really do matter,” McGovern says. “Charleston is the perfect place to highlight that because it has so much history that dates back to the pre-Federal period and has seen so much resurgence in architectural design and urbanism.”
Soon, Charleston designers Christopher Liberatos and Jenny Bevan will give an ICAA lecture in Atlanta.
While there has been tension between advocates of classical architecture and those who want to see modern design, there are signs that tension may be easing.
Both sides seem to agree that good design is good design, regardless of the approach. And one of the most important things about a building’s architecture, especially in cities, is how it relates to its surroundings, which are unique in each case.
Gary Brewer of Robert A.M. Stern Architects and an ICAA board members is very familiar with Charleston. Not only did he design the Kiawah Ocean Course Clubhouse but he also designed Courier Square, (a development backed by this newspaper’s parent corporation) that is taking shape at Meeting and Columbus streets.
“Personally, I’d like to see our organization engage the architectural profession a little more,” he says. “We just want good design.”
And, Lyden says he would like to raise awareness among developers of the advantages of traditional architecture, including everything from interior design to architectural ornament and proportions to landscape architecture.