Page C1.1 . 01 September 2004                     
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Southernness in Architecture

by Charles W. Moore

If John F. Kennedy did indeed call Washington, D.C., "a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm," it was a statement characterized less by its deadly accuracy and double-edged sharpness than by the startling lack of ambiguity that went with it. The American North is prized for its efficiency and the opulence of its progress. The American South is seen to lack those qualities and to rely instead on more leisurely (and more charming) ways.

The U.S. South as it is generally taken (from the Mason-Dixon line to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic Ocean to Texas) has a variety of climates, from the sharp seasonal differences of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the almost tropical Gulf coast. But almost all of the South has long hot summers that induce the tempo some of us connect with charm, and others link with indolence and poverty.

All of the area, too (except for a corner north of Washington), shares a past that includes the institution of black slavery, secession from the Union, a bloody and debilitating war, and (mostly) a slow and painful recovery. So the climate and the institutional inheritance may provide direction in our search for architectural "southernness."

Special Southern Places

In this search, I leave out examples from the present century, at least partly because buildings built during the heyday of the energy blowout have been air-conditioned by refrigeration and so have lost some reason for specialness and come closely to resemble buildings elsewhere.

Some of the places I consider are Jackson Square, New Orleans, houses in Charleston, South Carolina, and the towns of Savannah, Georgia and Bremo, Virginia. These places are mostly quite small, mostly possessed of a high degree of geometric order, and must have been, through most of their existence, swarming with inhabitants.   >>>

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This article is excerpted from You Have to Pay for the Public Life by Charles W. Moore, edited by Kevin Keim, with permission of the publisher, The MIT Press.

 

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A composite of the kinds of buildings typical of a square in Savannah, Georgia.
Image: Charles Moore

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Two apartment blocks, with just three stories and continuous balconies along the upper floors, grant in their symmetry a sense of urban center in Jackson Square, New Orleans.
Image: Charles Moore

 

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