Reveling in Small Spaces

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Charleston sidewalk scene: wide sidewalks, potted plants, and vine-covered buildings.

by James A. Bacon

One thing I look for in a city is the attention given to small spaces — the pocket parks, wide spots in the sidewalk, corridors between buildings and other features that lend texture and delight to an urban landscape. The antithesis is large parking lots, long buildings and the empty detritus of concrete that inhabitants long ago lost interest in.

The Bacon family is spending a short vacation in Charleston, S.C., a 300-year-old city with one of the nation’s largest historic districts, a great street grid, and an abundance of small spaces where Charlestonians have lavished love and care over the years. The city is most famous for the spectacular South of Broad neighborhood of handsome 18th- and 19th century buildings, a living architectural museum. But the city has a lot to offer North of Broad in a more conventional urban setting. The photos in this post come from a stroll around the block where our hotel, the Hampton Inn (comfortable but not exactly the most chi-chi address in town) is located.

Charleston4 I love the corridors between buildings where property owners treat what could be an ugly alleyway as a venue for creative landscaping. The corridor at left apparently leads to dwelling in the interior of the block, creating an inviting entrance for guests and a visual delight for passersby. Examples of these in Charleston are too numerous to document them all. This one is fairly typical.

 

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Another ordinary street scene: I like the cloistered effect created by the row of trees on one side of the sidewalk and storefronts abutting the sidewalk on the other side. Also, the awnings create visual interest.

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On the far side of the block from our hotel, there is an inset into the block, creating a mini-plaza lined by three restaurants and/or nightclubs. Long before it was ecologically hip to bedeck walls and roofs of buildings with greenery, Charlestonians were carpeting the sides of bricks buildings with thick mats of vines. Throw in some gas lamps, palmetto palms and stone-and-brick pavement, and you’ve got an attractive little courtyard.

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Thus, even the building entrance at right, comprised of an unadorned door and a large slab of rusting metal plate creates visual interest and a sense of, “Hey, I want to see what’s inside that place.”

None of these scenes is extraordinary in and of themselves. It’s the ubiquity of such scenes stitched together in an urban quilt that make Charleston distinctive.

The city doesn’t do everything right. There are plenty of blank spots in the canvas — large parking lots, blank buildings and walls, and stretches of sidewalks in terrible condition. (Our tour guide told us that so many tourists have tripped on pavement made jagged by tree routes that the city has implemented a walk-at-your-own peril legal policy.) Also, there are very few (if any) buildings taller than four stories. I assume that there are zoning restrictions against density. While policies that inhibit vertical growth preserve the historical character of the old city, it pushes metropolitan growth outwards, fostering suburban sprawl in the larger metropolitan area. Be that as it may, historical buildings, a walkable street grid and the care and nourishment of small places have created one of the most special, impossible-to-replicate places in the United States.

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15 responses to “Reveling in Small Spaces

  1. Like you, I love Charleston, SC and we visit regularly, enjoying all seasons. When I first visited I was amazed how small it seemed to be. They’ve done a great job of protecting their heritage. In early June the Spoleto Festival is wonderful along with the local version of it – Piccolo Spoleto.

    Yes, there is zoning that prohibits taller buildings. And there are requirements to protect the old structures. Sometimes that means buildings sit vacant and in poor condition for a long time before they are brought back to life.

    Over the years, I have seen improvements every year. Hurricane Hugo set them back but they have been working steadily. I agree that some of the most wonderful parts of Charleston are the small spaces. There are many since they originally taxed houses based on how much street frontage they had, which led to narrow fronts with wonderful things hidden behind gates.

    Thanks for the pictures!

  2. Every year my wife and I visit Charleston. Staying in an historic downtown Bed and Breakfast we wander the streets for several days, letting the history and culture and art soak in. This this year we will arrive on April 15th, a little more than two weeks from now.

    I am reminded of some comments on Jim’s trip to Barcelona several years ago. Here are a few of my comments on that city and others from back then that reflect on Charleston as well. It comes from one of several articles, namely:

    http://www.baconsrebellion.com/2012/08/public-art-and-building-for-the-ages.html

    “The Victorian Building Streetscape that starts off this article about Barcelona could also be Buenos Aires today. Or it could be late 19th – early 20th century F Street, downtown DC. Or countless other priceless urban neighborhoods that our misguided urban planning, and our clueless lack of culture and respect for the past work of our ancestors, have mindlessly destroyed.

    Hence, far too often we tear far too many street buildings down – it’s like ripping old photos out a priceless family album. When we rip our past apart, we empty out our soul. And damn our ancestors and their souls to oblivion, which should be a crime against humanity. A society that disrespects its legitimate past, and those who built it, disrespects itself.

    We then add insult to the injury by replacing fine old wonderful buildings that mirror the spirit of those who designed and built them, with Disposable buildings. Far too many of which are cheap and sterile. This in turn deletes the souls of those who follow us, our epidemic of rootless lost children.

    One is reminded to Henry Miller’s “Air Conditioned Nightmare.”
    ==

    The advent of Structural Steel combined with invention of the Elevator to make a radical changes to the landscape, lifestye and skyline of Cities. The Trolley, auto, and subway added to the revolution.

    With structural Steel a tall vertical building at last could be built on a narrow base. This allowed far more physical height and space to rest on a far smaller footprint. This was huge – value created out of thin air.

    The invention of the steel and electric motor elevator put these new physics of building construction on Steroids. Suddenly value created out of thin air became exponential. The upper floors were now suddenly as convenient as the lower floors, yet the upper floors had the height and views that deeply touch human psyche, a closeness to the Gods, with its resultant increase in one’s Status, a living symbol of one’s success.

    Thus the skyscraper became both economical but a money creator. Steel reinforced, elevator serviced buildings that radiate verticality birthed a new age. The second built (round 1873) and oldest still standing resides in DC.

    These early Victorian buildings (including early skyscrapers) were extremely energy efficient. The reinforcing steel was typically embedded in Terra Cotta clad in granite. And window glass was small and recessed. The horrible inefficient (heating and cooling) of our tall, plain and ugly steel and glass facades came much later.”

    ====

    “So much of Barcelona (and similar places) reflect the deep rooted cultural values of the society that built it. I can’t speak to the rights of developers there as regards written regulations, but these people likely value their past to a far greater degree than most Americans. Indeed it a reverence woven deep into the bones, so deep that likely much of it is unconsciousness.

    So, to tear down the city of the Parent’s, Parent’s Parents, and all The Parents before their Parent’s Parents, is simply unthinkable.

    On the other hand, to the degree that Americans are highly mobile, so can live anyway, the particulars of a place and value they put those particulars are of a far different order and kind that those in Barcelona, I suspect.

    But note all the New Innovative Art in the Photos above. Where did that come from? Likely it grows out of the culture’s veneration of the past, this heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings and how they have evolved over 2000 years. All this change over this changeless base somehow creates a felt obligation to continue the tradition – hence tradition breeds art which breeds non destructive change under the right circumstances.

    But much of it is paradox, too. Paris built the Static French Academy. And Modernists Art at the same time. While also trying to freeze its language in a plaster cast. It’s complicated.”

    See:

    http://www.baconsrebellion.com/2012/08/public-art-and-building-for-the-ages.html

  3. Every year my wife and I visit Charleston. Staying in an historic downtown Bed and Breakfast we wander the streets for several days, letting the history and culture and art soak in. This this year we will arrive on April 15th, a little more than two weeks from now.

    I am reminded of some comments on Jim’s trip to Barcelona several years ago. Here are a few of my comments on that city and others from back then that reflect on Charleston as well. It comes from one of several articles, namely:

    http://www.baconsrebellion.com/2012/08/public-art-and-building-for-the-ages.html

    “The Victorian Building Streetscape that starts off this article about Barcelona could also be Buenos Aires today. Or it could be late 19th – early 20th century F Street, downtown DC. Or countless other priceless urban neighborhoods that our misguided urban planning, and our clueless lack of culture and respect for the past work of our ancestors, have mindlessly destroyed.

    Hence, far too often we tear far too many street buildings down – it’s like ripping old photos out a priceless family album. When we rip our past apart, we empty out our soul. And damn our ancestors and their souls to oblivion, which should be a crime against humanity. A society that disrespects its legitimate past, and those who built it, disrespects itself.

    We then add insult to the injury by replacing fine old wonderful buildings that mirror the spirit of those who designed and built them, with Disposable buildings. Far too many of which are cheap and sterile. This in turn deletes the souls of those who follow us, our epidemic of rootless lost children.

    One is reminded to Henry Miller’s “Air Conditioned Nightmare.”

    ==

    The advent of Structural Steel combined with invention of the Elevator to make a radical changes to the landscape, lifestye and skyline of Cities. The Trolley, auto, and subway added to the revolution.

    With structural Steel a tall vertical building at last could be built on a narrow base. This allowed far more physical height and space to rest on a far smaller footprint. This was huge – value created out of thin air.

    The invention of the steel and electric motor elevator put these new physics of building construction on Steroids. Suddenly value created out of thin air became exponential. The upper floors were now suddenly as convenient as the lower floors, yet the upper floors had the height and views that deeply touch human psyche, a closeness to the Gods, with its resultant increase in one’s Status, a living symbol of one’s success.

    Thus the skyscraper became both economical but a money creator. Steel reinforced, elevator serviced buildings that radiate verticality birthed a new age. The second built (round 1873) and oldest still standing resides in DC.

    These early Victorian buildings (including early skyscrapers) were extremely energy efficient. The reinforcing steel was typically embedded in Terra Cotta clad in granite. And window glass was small and recessed. The horrible inefficient (heating and cooling) of our tall, plain and ugly steel and glass facades came much later.”

    ====

    “So much of Barcelona (and similar places) reflect the deep rooted cultural values of the society that built it. I can’t speak to the rights of developers there as regards written regulations, but these people likely value their past to a far greater degree than most Americans. Indeed it a reverence woven deep into the bones, so deep that likely much of it is unconsciousness.

    So, to tear down the city of the Parent’s, Parent’s Parents, and all The Parents before their Parent’s Parents, is simply unthinkable.

    On the other hand, to the degree that Americans are highly mobile, so can live anyway, the particulars of a place and value they put those particulars are of a far different order and kind that those in Barcelona, I suspect.

    But note all the New Innovative Art in the Photos above. Where did that come from? Likely it grows out of the culture’s veneration of the past, this heightened sensitivity to one’s surroundings and how they have evolved over 2000 years. All this change over this changeless base somehow creates a felt obligation to continue the tradition – hence tradition breeds art which breeds non destructive change under the right circumstances.

    But much of it is paradox, too. Paris built the Static French Academy. And Modernists Art at the same time. While also trying to freeze its language in a plaster cast. It’s complicated.”

  4. we’re actually down in the Charleston area this week also! we visited the Francis Beidler Forest north west of Charleston that sits astride the Four Hole Swamp river which is a tributary of the Edisto River that flows east into the Atlantic Ocean.

    A couple of observations :

    1. the last remaining old growth cypress and tupelo is at Francis Beider … the wood now gone went to build those grand old homes and buildings in Charleston as did most of the old growth forests along the east coast did.

    2. as much as folks laud Charleston – a ride around the fringes of Charleston as we did – will introduce you to the reality of suburban sprawl that no city including Charleston is immune to.

    Countless new subdivisions advertise new homes for the “low” 200K range.

    folks should also understand that ‘walkable” place need infrastructure and motorized transport – to bring food and water and take away trash and poop.

    I’m not disparaging “walkable” at all, it’s a valuable and integral part of most of our lives – but on the other side – all of us do depend on vehicles and roads – to support that “walkability”.

    If we were “walkable” like a 3rd world country – where transport is on much fewer, more primitive roads and mobility was walk a lot more and ride on an overloaded train/bus – we might not find such “walkability” so novel and charming.

    truly “walkable” places of the kind we “adore” are products of government – infrastructure and services – not private sector nor the “free” market. If you want “free market” walkabiity , go to Cairo, or Bombay or Mogadishu.

    If you have any doubt about Charleston road infrastructure – take a look

    I would posit that the road infrastructure surrounding Charleston are what enables the small walkable places therein.

  5. Christopher Alexander wrote a book about architecture called “A Pattern Language” describing 253 design patterns from the largest to the smallest that made a dwelling or a city “livable”. These patterns, when thoughtfully combined, yield to the human eye something that we call “beautiful” because they address our deep seated desires and needs.

    On the city scale the patterns include things like, identifiable neighborhoods, four-story limit, promenade, night life. At the housing level the patterns address housing in the form of clusters, and include degrees of publicness, old people everywhere, and work communities. In between, the patterns include green streets, raised walk, quiet backs, small public squares, connected play, still water. For the house, patterns such as common areas at the heart, wings of light, intimacy gradient, and opening to the street, create an inviting living space.

    This book was written in 1977 but it references design practices thousands of years old. It’s not that we don’t know how to design appealing, livable spaces – but we have mostly forgotten or choose not to for economic reasons. The artisan crafted woodwork and stonework of older buildings is too expensive today. As Jim has noted, we are interested in immediate payback – not the long view. So we throw up boxy, plain buildings designed to be torn down in a human lifetime rather than build something worthy of remaining for generations while giving us lasting pleasure. And all in the name of “progress”. The small downtown near where I live is filled with well maintained buildings from the late 1800’s which are far more appealing than most commercial buildings built in the 20th century.

    • TomH’s comment recalls my earlier comment on same subject:

      “When reading James Bacon’s above article, consider all the options that Barcelona offers its residents as they go about the various tasks of their daily living. No matter what the task at hand, note all the variety, efficiency, and convenience that the city affords the people living in it.

      It is as if the City were seamlessly and constantly tailoring itself all day long to the particular needs of each individual on each day at that particular hour. How does this happen? Why? And from where do all these layered options, their amazing complexity and subtlety, arise?

      Sure answers are not easily found. One insight, however, might be gleaned by biking a steep road up an escarpment behind the Mediterranean Coast. A friend and I once biked such a road, up its steep climb for hours, without once having to shift gears. We were fit back then. But the road was also perfectly engineered for our task, our feet turning wheels carrying us up.

      Why and how? I was told the road was shaped over millennium by travelers afoot – goats, mules, horses, and people – whose moving feet turning wheels adapted its slopes to the tasks and tools of the travelers using them.

      An old road, it also passed under a Roman Aqueduct spanning a gorge it climbed. Surely there are lessons here too, positive and negative perhaps.

      In any case, these earlier travelers afoot learned how best to deal with and adapt to the world they lived in, or quickly passed from the scene forever.

      Now I wonder if our technologies often blind us to many realities our predecessors were forced to confront head on. And so give us a false sense of security against many realities that are still with us. Realities that plague or delight us, even if we longer see or feel them with the clarity or urgency we need to enjoy and harness them, or avoid their harmful consequences.

      I suspect Barcelona is wise about many things many of us have forgotten.”

      — —

      That comment is found in Jim’s earlier Barcelona article found at:

      http://www.baconsrebellion.com/2012/08/world-class-walkability-in-barcelona.html

      • Reed,

        You make an excellent point. In our modern age we are encased in climate controlled buildings, or metal and plastic on rubber wheels traveling on asphalt. Not that these don’t have their advantages but it does isolate us from our environs. Our wisdom about how to exist in a place diminishes.

        The easiest way through a woods is usually by following a deer trail. The early settlers of the Shenandoah Valley coming in from the north followed the hunting trails shared by many tribes of native Americans for millennia. Early towns developed one day’s travel apart on the wagon road. Route 11 travels this ancient pathway, but I-81 could not follow the wise road and blasted its way through with cuts and fills, because we could.

        Our modern designs for living lead to stress which is the genesis of most our disease. I’m eager to see if we can evolve into a better way of living using the best of our modern world combined with the wisdom of the past. I enjoy stepping out from behind the computer to walk to the library, or the Y, or along the walkway by the river greeted by friendly faces of those I know and those that I don’t.

        There is a reason we react viscerally to well designed spaces. Wise old craftsmen would always caution that you can’t afford cheap tools. The same should be said of our built environment. Beauty, craftsmanship, functionality, diversity of form, integrated with the natural world will always pay dividends.

      • TomH –

        I agree with you here.

        I spent a good deal of time acquiring and restoring landmark buildings that were then placed on National Register of historic places. I just finished “reinventing” a early hunting lodge on a river. I am forever surprised on every such job at the skill, technological prowess, wisdom, and artistry of our earlier American generations. At how when building these wonderful things they used and incorporated into what they built the wisdom and skill, and appreciations, that they had gathered from untold generations of ancestors gone before. It astounds me how much of this incredible legacy we today have forgotten, tossed away, and/or cannot see, much less appreciate. I suspect many complicated forces are at work here.

        Perhaps a classic example of forgetting is the unadulterated glass and Steel Skyscraper built most everywhere after the WWII. Or the mongrel FBI building, the culmination of years building vulgar ugliness in our nations Capital DC on historic sites of torn down Federal and Victorian Masterpieces. Add in long commutes through traffic gridlock. We live in man made nightmares.

        Hence my profound anger at Northern Virginia’s vast stretches of urban and suburban no where places that destroy peoples lives, their health, their welfare, and their families, when we know how to build peoples surroundings so much better. Yet refuse to do so. It’s inexcusable.

  6. well , we “did” Charleston this afternoon and I guess I’d be curious to hear opinions from others who have been there.

    Here’s my take:

    If one defines “walkability” to be places where pedestrians roam without nary car in sight – forget Charleston.

    the place is filthy with cars Every street and every street corner is a car vs pedestrian conundrum.

    It’s not ugly as sin… it actually… somehow.. “works” no pedestrians appear to die by car/pedestrians interactions are the norm, not the exception.

    the “charm” of Charleston is:

    1. – grand old homes lining the streets

    2. – lines of parked cars “lining” the grand homes lining the streets.

    some grand old homes have courtyards converted to parking…

    The Ravenel Bridge is a strikingly beautiful structure – built for cars but with a nifty dedicated ped pathway just chock full of joggers, moms with baby carriages and everyone in between.

  7. Yes there are cars in Charleston but I’ve never found it to be impossible to find parking or traffic moving at a ridiculously slow pace. It is possible to get around.

  8. Charleston old town reminds me a little bit of the French Quarter in New Orleans.

    and yes – you can certainly get around in a car in Charleston and especially so if you are patient with other cars, pedestrians and bikes but as a Mecca for those who are looking for car-free walk-ability, it’s not.

    And thats the reality of it – those same crowded streets are teeming with deilvery trucks and trash trucks come early morning so that the next days crowd of people can be fed and provided with drink.

    • Having just been in New Orleans, trying to drive through on a Wednesday late morning, Charleston is a LOT easier to move around in by car and there’s very limited parking in New Orleans. It’s much more frustrating to do anything in New Orleans but walk. Somehow, Charleston balances things better in my experience.

  9. Jim – it’s nice to hear you commenting on the quality of urban spaces. Regarding Larry’s comment above, I think that Charleston is exemplary for being walkable precisely because of the mix between cars and pedestrians (and bikes and horse-drawn carriages and…). This is how walkable communities are supposed to work.

    Also, on a related note, you should dig a little into the controversy over the Beach Company’s proposed redevelopment of the Sargent Jasper property. It’s a fascinating case study of high quality urban development versus preservation interests. The controversy is currently making its way through the SC court system, with implications on the state constitutionality of the preservation regulations in Charleston, the US’s first and oldest.

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