Musings From Charleston
Earlier this year, Matthew Teismann [Director of Architecture], took an architectural trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Attempting to draw from its rich and storied cultural history, Teismann performed a self-guided architectural tour of the city’s famous and infamous buildings. Spending one week in Charleston, he visited, sketched, and photographed architecture from across the city center.
Some of the most compelling spaces in Charleston arise from a historical urban fabric woven together with contemporary interior spaces, usually masked behind rich and textured colonial facades. The complexities of architectural traditions in Charleston span from English colonization, southern [French] traditions, and East Coast modernity. As such, Charleston rests at the confluence of many architectural influences that coalesce into a diverse and rewarding environment.
From the cobblestone streets of the old harbour town, we see clear colonial influences [English and French], at small urban scale. One building of such significance is the Old Slave Mart. Constructed in 1859, the building is believed to be the last extant slave auction facility in South Carolina. The unique façade of the Old Slave Mart consists of 20' octagonal pillars at each end, with a central elliptical arch comprising the entrance. The building originally contained one large room with a 20' ceiling. In 1878, a second floor was added, and the roof was overhauled.
The Old Slave Mart was established in 1856 by Charleston City Councilman Thomas Ryan, after a citywide ban on public slave auctions made private 'underground' facilities necessary. Slave auctions were held at the site until approximately 1863; in 1865, the Union Army occupied Charleston and closed Ryan's Mart. When Union forces occupied Charleston beginning in February 1865, the slaves still imprisoned at Ryan's Mart were freed.
The Slave Mart and other public buildings of Charleston’s historic center are surrounded by wonderfully detailed residential areas that have a unique typology: the Charleston Single House. A single house has its narrow side (often two- or three-bays wide) with a gable end along the street and a longer side (often five-bays) running perpendicular to the street. The house is well-suited to long, narrow lots which were laid out in early Charleston. Although the form can be found across historic Charleston in a variety of styles, the consistent feature is layout. A front door is located on the long side of the house, halfway along the side perpendicular to the street, located under multi-storey porches, known locally as piazzas. This door opens onto a short central hall and staircase. There is one room on each side of the hall, that is, one toward the street and one toward the rear of the house. The result is a building which is only one room wide when viewed from the street, giving the form its popular name. Each floor contained two rooms, and the floorplan was reproduced on each upper floor. The oblique entry, not off of the main street but through an interstitial piazza on the side, is an architectural sequencing that could be used in contemporary projects today.
Located along city center streets, however, is also much new construction that pays homage to the historical and architectural context of the city. Tall structures with vertical movement, coupled with set backs and recessed, help carve an urban edge tuned to the local climate. New construction is abundant in Charleston, and these buildings serve to continue the urban history of the city long into the future.
Another exciting feature of Charleston is the mosaic of contemporary interior spaces, in particular in bars and restaurants. The use of exposed structure, simple yet rustic materials, and natural warm light create complex yet clean interior spaces as a reposed from the hot, humid south. Simple color pallets and high ceilings, thanks to the historic structures, are as inviting as they are textured. In the hot climate of Charleston, these interior volumes serve as a secondary public realm, continuing the streets and plazas of the city into the building.
Charleston offers rich lessons for the contemporary architect, with a variety of influences to draw from. From its historical urban and colonial context, to the public interior, Charleston is an inviting city with architectural stories within its stones.