Charleston's debate goes national

This rendering shows the height, massing and general shape of a proposed Clemson architecture building in relationship with neighboring buildings near Meeting, George and Calhoun streets. (Provided)

Deciding how new construction in historic areas of the Holy City should look is no longer a debate just for Charleston. Saturday's New York Times laid the issue out for its millions of readers: “In Stately Old Charleston, the New Buildings on the Block Are Struggling to Fit In.”

Richard Fausset, who wrote the Times article, called them “newish anonymous buildings that could have been built in Atlanta or Orange County, Calif., ... ungainly new government buildings, and the dull boxes dressed up with the occasional row of columns.”

It's a sadly familiar complaint — often voiced by those who live and work in the historic district.

But modern architecture isn't a topic of interest only as it relates to historic Charleston. Of late, architects worldwide have been the object of criticism for designing structures to impress other architects instead of designing them for the people who will live with them.

The local debate is special in that it also involves the tension between new construction and the historic buildings nearby.

So Charleston, the first city in the country to adopt a historic preservation zoning ordinance in 1931, again will be under a spotlight regarding its Board of Architectural Review, and the key role it plays in what is built in the city's historic areas.

Unfortunately, much of the new construction has been disappointing to both traditionalists and modernists. Some blame centers on the hurdles the city requires builders to clear. It's easier to put up a boring building than to get approval for something more interesting.

On the other hand, the intense scrutiny of the approval process can be helpful.

For example, the BAR Wednesday will consider a new design for an office building at 80 Calhoun St. The previous proposal was too big for the lot, and the neighbors and some members of the BAR were unhappy with its size and design. The developer ultimately withdrew his application.

The downsized plan has been applauded by neighborhood representatives. It's a heartening development.

Meanwhile, the city has hired Andres Duany, noted city planner, to analyze the architectural review process and recommend changes in how it works.

But even that move has its supporters and detractors. Mr. Duany certainly has an impressive resume. The project for which he is best known is Seaside, Fla., a planned community that preservationists point out is not what Charleston needs.

Charleston has attained its beauty and architectural value because it does not reflect one style or one period of history, but a 345-year-old history and many styles.

Indeed, Mayor Joe Riley, who was dubbed by the Times reporter as “something of an aesthete-in-chief,” is enthusiastic about the classic design of the Gaillard Center as well as the contemporary design of the planned International African American Museum.

The people of Charleston will be watching, as they have for generations, to try to protect their city's charm and beauty.

And now, people across the country will be watching, too.