Page C1.2 . 01 September 2004                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Southernness in Architecture


Therein lies their special quality and essential paradox: although the heavily populated industrial cities of this country have been mostly in the North (where attitudes, as Vincent Scully has pointed out, were non- or even anti-urban and the life of the imagination was focused on the limitless frontier), the much more rural South, at once small-scaled and monumental, hyped up by the ferocity of its summers achieved a pitch of public inhabitation describable only as urban, and urbane.

Whole cities, especially coastal ones like Charleston and New Orleans, pressed by the swampy ground into quite restricted compass, then opened up internally to catch any summer breeze, must have been models of pell-mell urban vivacity, with life in the streets at an almost Venetian intensity.

In the Vieux Carré, the original part of New Orleans, the density of urban life was intensified in the early 19th century as the narrow streets were lined with buildings whose grilled balconies overhung the sidewalks. In such a fine-grained urban scene, acts of geometric formality, even gentle ones, can exert enormous power.

Just so the Baroness Pontalbo's twin apartment blocks, altogether simple with just three generous stories and continuous balconies along the upper floors, grant in their symmetry a real sense of the center of things (an urban sense) to Jackson Square which they flank.

The rather unprepossessingly spiky cathedral in the center of the Jackson Square composition, flanked by government buildings of simple elegance (the Cabildo and Presbytère) along the end of the square opposite the levee, is then thrust into a position of much increased importance by the Pontalbo apartments along the square's sides.

For contrast, one might consider a typical 20th-century new town and wonder where in, say, Columbia, Maryland, one might place two three-story apartment blocks to have any effect on the urban scene at all.

Town of Grace and Charm

The urban fabric of Charleston, South Carolina, which also had 18th-century beginnings, is, as the plan suggests, somewhat less formal. It incorporates, however, a number of house types, at least one of them invented for this very site, which sought quite specifically to improve the quality of comfort along this steamy coast and in doing that established the pattern for an altogether memorable city.

The special house form, the Charleston single house, is an incident of urban cooperation by now regulated out of existence. The system places long, one-room-wide houses at right angles to the offset, with a two- or three-story "piazza," off of which all the rooms open, and which runs along the narrow garden.

The windows of the house next door pick up air from this same garden but no valuable space is wasted on setback; all the lot is rendered habitable, all the rooms have natural through ventilation and adjacent space on a shared piazza, and every house has a garden. Entrance is generally right off the street, often highly elaborated to celebrate the passage from the public sidewalk outdoors to the private realm (still outdoors) which begins just inside the door.

Smaller Charleston houses relegate the garden to the rear and adjoin their neighbors in rows along the street, or more grandly face the street in a format which allows generous vertical spaces inside, as in the Nathaniel Russell House, to induce a chimney of air and set the stage for gracious sweeping movements by ladies in expensive finery.

All these building types are set within the limits (disciplined by the climate and the scarcity of land) of a dense urban fabric which allows a nuance like the thrust forward of the porch and spire of St. Michael's Church ahead of the building line of adjacent houses to have powerful visual consequences, assuring the importance of St. Michael's.

Southern Geometry

By all odds, however, the most highly developed urban geometry in the South (or the country) is that of Savannah, Georgia, which was planned around an expandable series of squares by James Oglethorpe, the English gentleman who founded the place on a bluff above the Savannah River.

The most remarkable qualities of the city's plan are the great variety of building sites it provides within such an apparently simple framework and the alternate traffic patterns it allows. At each square are four monumental building sites, visible across the width of the square and each public on three sides.

Along the sides of each square, more modest building plots share their amenity with the neighboring buildings which slip off in an unbroken row down the block, not actually facing the square but, on the other hand, not really cut off from it.

The most memorable streets, meanwhile, those perpendicular to the river, have been spared from heavy through traffic by the squares themselves, which provide monuments on axis that require slow-speed circumnavigation each time. Major traffic is thus relegated to the alternate straight streets which harbor commerce, while pockets of residential peace are left around almost all the squares.

Streets parallel to the river slip alongside the squares uninterrupted and generally not congested landward of the pair of commercial streets closest to the river. The houses, which are generally row houses in this dense fabric, usually have their main rooms raised one floor off the street for improved circulation of air under the elegantly high ceilings.

One last quality of the South began to show up late in the last century: its exoticism. Its Transylvanian sense of separateness from a rapidly changing world, especially evident after the Civil War, prompted northern architects not just to import exotic styles, which they would have done anywhere, but to pursue them all the way to fairyland and create a complex exotic world: French in the Smoky Mountains, Spanish (with more evident local reason) in St. Augustine, Florida, Moorish, somehow, in Tampa, or Spanish on the east coast of Florida.

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Charles W. Moore (1925-1993) was a celebrated architect, teacher, and writer. Kevin Keim is his biographer and long-time collaborator.

This article is excerpted from You Have to Pay for the Public Life, copyright © 2004, available from The MIT Press and at The full version of this essay was originally published in Perspecta, no. 15, 1975. Charles Moore wrote "Southernness" for Perspecta's issue on "Backgrounds for an American Architecture."



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The single house form in Charleston, South Carolina is angled to the street to catch breezes from the garden.
Image: Charles Moore

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Inside the Nathaniel Russell House, Charleston.
Image: Charles Moore

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St. Michael's Church, Charleston.
Image: Charles Moore

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Bremo, Virginia, influenced on a more modest scale, by Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson.
Image: Charles Moore

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Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina, by Richard Morris Hunt.
Image: Charles Moore

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Ponce de Leon Hotel, St. Augustine, Florida, by Carrere and Hastings and Bernard Maybeck.
Image: Charles Moore

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Tampa Bay Hotel, Florida, by J. A. Wood.
Image: Charles Moore

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Collection of Essays by Charles W. Moore.
Image: The MIT Press


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