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Learning from Charleston

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interview

Learning from Charleston

City Talk November 16, 2019
Cities
Witold Rybczynski (Photo courtesy of David Graham)

Wiltold Rybczynski reviewed Charleston's architecture and urban success with City Journal assistant editor Charles F. McElwee. Rybczynski, a writer and architect, is Emeritus Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in City Journal, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Slate, and the New York Times. From 2004 to 2012, he served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. He is the author of twenty books, including this year's Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams.

1) Your book, Charleston Fancy, chronicles building homes in modern Charleston. What is the state of architecture in the “Holy City”?

Charleston exercises direct control over architecture. It was the first city in the country to create a historic zoning district, in 1931. The zoning regulated what was built, and more importantly, how it was built. Any addition, alteration, or demolition of an existing building, and any new construction, had to be approved by a Board of Architectural Review, a seven-person panel appointed by the city. The zoning district was originally quite small, but over the years it has been enlarged to include almost the entire Charleston peninsula, where about a third of the city’s population lives. This powerful tool is not perfect—things slip through—but it has generally preserved the character and scale of this historic city.

2) What inspired you to write the book?

I’ve written books about architecture (How Architecture Works), urbanism (Makeshift Metropolis), and real estate development (Last Harvest), but this was an opportunity to combine the three themes and explore the connections between them. Charleston Fancy is a book that describes real estate developments—small and large—many of which incorporate distinctly quirky architecture, from Byzantine to Moorish. At the same time, the character of the city has a strong effect on the developers and builders, especially in the case of downtown infill projects.

3) Charleston receives international praise for its charm, architectural beauty, and historic preservation—all driving forces behind its tourism industry. But what are some challenges that the city faces?

Charleston has a reputation as a tourist city, but it’s also a university town and a millennials magnet—it attracts young people working at tech startups. This has produced a real estate boom that has attracted national developers, who tend to build large projects. I think that generic, block-size buildings represent a serious threat to the human scale of Charleston. One can only hope that the boom will bust, as all booms do, and the city will return to its previous smaller—and local—growth patterns.

4) What’s an overlooked trend occurring in U.S. cities?

Cities reacting against the gig economy. Charleston has been aggressive in regulating—that is, drastically restricting—Airbnb, for example. At the same time, it licenses bed-and-breakfasts in the historic district as a way for homeowners to maintain their large houses. Short-term rentals, which cut into the regular housing market, are restricted to certain well-defined locations. Interestingly, new short-term rental construction must follow residential codes, so that units can be converted into conventional houses in the future.

5) Many midsize and smaller U.S. cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast have architecturally rich residential and commercial structures. Can these communities take any lessons from Charleston’s experience?

The continued decline in the quality of construction—all those glass towers!—makes us nostalgic for the solidity of limestone and brick. Not just Victorian but early twentieth-century civic buildings—American Modern—are starting to look pretty good. So are waterfronts, solid industrial buildings, and old-fashioned Main Streets. All these offer a potential competitive advantage to small, older cities. When Charleston started to protect its architectural heritage, it was a poor and rather backward Southern city. Nevertheless, its citizens marshaled their resources and persevered. That is a valuable lesson.

Top Photo: SeanPavonePhoto/iStock

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