Just before he left office in January, Mayor Joe Riley took pains to see to one last minor architectural detail in the city he led for decades.
And his work paid off recently, as the Charleston County School District removed the large vertical louvers outside the Meeting Street facade of the Charleston Progressive School.
To some, this might seem like no big deal.
But to the former mayor, it became a personal cause, one that nicely illustrates his interest in all of the city’s physical details and for which he has won national recognition.
These sorts of louvers have cropped up increasingly as prominent features in some of Charleston’s new buildings. Their purpose is much like those louvers commonly found on operable window shutters. They let in some indirect light but shield direct light.
As architects and their clients become more sensitive to energy costs, a key concern of the whole green architecture movement, louvers have become a more popular detail for keeping direct sun and heat at bay.
In many cases, such as the Charleston Gateway Center office at 40 Calhoun St., the louvers are positioned directly above the windows as a sort of functional but ornamental hood.
Before the mayor took up the cause, this column offered a mild criticism, saying the school provided an unfriendly shoulder to the street. (Overall, Liollio Associates and the school district did a nice job blending the new with the old during the upgrade of the former Courtenay Middle.)
Riley says the louvers’ language was heavy industrial and institutional and a bad fit for one of the city’s main streets.
“In a city, the hierarchy of responsibility — the hierarchy of things a new building has to be responsive to and respectful to — begins with the street,” he says. “How does it enrich, enliven and give respect to the street and the human beings’ experience along the street?”
Riley says he gets the idea that the louvers blocked direct sunlight while letting in other light, “and that was really good. It’s just that you have to start not with that. You have to start with the street.”
That the building was a school for children only bolstered the then-mayor’s desire to remove a detail he felt made humans feel “subservient and cold.”
Riley raised the concern with the school district, which agreed to strike them from the building, but the city’s Board of Architectural Review wanted them to remain. Riley later would appear before both the school board and the BAR to get his way.
“I knew it would take real effort, and that’s why I got involved,” he says. “I don’t think it would have happened if I didn’t push.”
Last fall, the district approved spending $120,000 on removing the vertical louvers along Meeting.
The building’s horizontal louvers just around the corner on Ann Street remain, but they don’t look as forboding, and there are fewer pedestrians passing directly alongside them.
Architect Dinos Liollio, whose firm did the design, says the mayor was gracious, candid and honest when they discussed the louvers.
“This was a point we just disagreed on from an aesthetic standpoint,” Liollio says. “Do we miss them? Yes, we do miss them.”
But Liollio notes the bulk of the design, including the light way the new building touches the old one, remains, and the building has won multiple design awards “with the louvers.”
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.