Field Notes: College of Charleston announces new program to focus on “progressive traditional” architecture

16 Apr 2017 5:46 PM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)
submitted by  Nathaniel R. Walker, PhD

The College of Charleston has long hosted one of the nation's largest historic preservation undergraduate programs. This fact is well known, but less well known is the full name of that program: Historic Preservation and Community Planning (HPCP). This name clearly asserts that historic preservation is not an isolated discipline concerned with the caretaking of individual, hermetic structures that host a few human lives at a time, but rather must extend its theories and practices to the broad, interconnected fabrics of the places that we call home as communities. Preservation is political.

To keep the promise of that name, the College of Charleston's HPCP program has lately been increasing its engagement with the realms of community building. This has culminated in the creation of a new MA program dedicated to Community Planning, Policy, and Design (CPAD), launching this fall (pending SACSCOC approval). There are two main reasons this will be a unique program of interest to both contemporary practitioners of design and to scholars of history. The first draws upon Charleston as a place where citizens have long been privy to the power of architectural placemaking as an economic and political tool. Charleston's commitment to urbanism was famously fueled by the governance of now ex-Mayor Joe Riley, who has been instrumental to the new CPAD program. Its curriculum will thus fortify design studio courses with classes on the ethics of public policy and the economics real estate, so that students can come to grips with the realities of development and the effects that it has upon human lives.

The second unique feature of CPAD is its design ethos: "progressive traditional" architecture. It was primarily this feature that sailed the new program through more than a dozen institutional and state committee hearings with an unprecedented record of 100% unanimous approval. What does the phrase "progressive traditional" mean? Charleston provides the answer. The city is famous for its beautiful traditional architecture, but the chief point interest for the average scholar is not the abundance of Corinthian columns or other telltale signs of Euro-American luxury, but rather the rich poetics of the city's contributions to vernacular architecture, which are much more diverse in origin. The Charleston Single House, for example, is a product of cultural blending between Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean, and as such tells an empowering story of intercontinental human ingenuity that defies the bitter, broken old narratives of white supremacy that give the city its undertone of melancholy and cast a shadow on many of those Corinthian columns. CPAD insists that traditional design, like historic preservation itself, can only make good architecture when it aspires to good politics--which is to say, when it works to ennoble and inspire every member of society, and to empower the disempowered. The "progressive traditional" design ethos will thus draw upon the world's rich variety of useful, sustainable, and beautiful architectures, from any and all corners of the globe, celebrating the vernacular, the pluralistic, the humanist, and the hybrid, as keys to democratizing, while also generally improving, traditional architecture.

The CPAD program in unique, but it does not spring fFigure 1- 25 Tupelo Street, Seaside, Deborah Berke, 1984. Photo by Nathaniel Robert Walker.orth out of a total vacuum. There are architects working today who have made real contributions to traditional design along these politically illuminated lines, and our students have already set themselves to studying these accomplishments. This week, a group of College of Charleston HPCP undergrads travelled to Seaside, Florida, at the behest, and with the support, of the Seaside Chapel Board. It is no secret that Seaside and the New Urbanism have both been subject to a fair amount of criticism by scholars of architecture, including prominent members of the VAF; it must be said, however, that a deeply considered appreciation for vernacular architecture played a role in this resort town's evolution that often goes unacknowledged. In the beginning, the town's architectural model was the aesthetically simple, ecologically sensible bungalows of rural Florida. Renowned architect Deborah Berke, now Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, designed many of the first Seaside structures in the early 1980s (figure 1). Most remain today and are fondly looked upon by planners Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk as inspired renditions of regional vernacular traditions that should have, perhaps, been felt more keenly as the town exploded in size and popularity, becoming a living place that no architect or planner could fully control.

In 2001, as larger, more formal, and occasionally pretentious villas began to displace, and even replace, those elegant little bungalows, the Seaside Interfaith Chapel was designed to leverage the vernacular as an architecture of civic resistance. Architect Scott Merrill methodically drew upon the humble local churches of rural Alabama and the vernacular architecture of Florida's rapidly disappearing industrial grapefruit-sorting structures to craft a huge, prominently cited civic monument that added spiritual gravity to the town (figure 2).Figure 2-College of Charleston faculty and students at the Seaside Interfaith Chapel, designed by Scott Merrill, 2001. Photo courtesy of Mark Gessler.As an interfaith chapel, it was important that the building not display any architectural forms or details that were specific to any given liturgy. Locals frankly have no idea how to describe the building's complex, abstract stylistic pedigree, deploying phrases like "Carpenter Gothic" despite its conspicuous lack of any Gothic hallmarks. The vernacular here served two purposes: it provided an architectural model that could equally serve many different religious congregations, and it differentiated the structure from the surrounding, increasingly classical residential architecture. The traditional relationship between the informal, vernacular, everyday private architecture and the formal, classical, special public architecture was thus inverted!  But the distinction was preserved, honoring the public in the process.

For these reasons and more, students from the College of Charleston Historic Preservation and Community Planning program have spent the past few days photographing, measuring, and 3D scanning the Seaside Interfaith Chapel for submission to HABS. We believe, tentatively, that this will be the youngest building to make it on the list, if indeed it does. But we nonetheless sincerely believe that it deserves to be recorded and archived through HABS, for the same reason we are thrilled to be launching our new CPAD in "progressive traditional" design this fall. If traditional architecture is going to have a future, it must evolve on several levels, becoming more politically thoughtful and thus more inclusive. Historic preservation should dedicate itself to revealing our shared past, and community planning must commit itself to a shared future. Vernacular architecture is abundantly rich in design resources that are perfect for sharing.


From the Field,

Nathaniel Robert Walker, PhD

Assistant Professor of Architectural History

The College of Charleston


Click here for more information on the CPAD program.

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