Why Is My Town Ugly?

In architecture school, student projects are reviewed in a group setting. Students attempt to defend their project to a panel of professors and an motley band of students. “Beauty” is a standard that is seldom applied or used as a defense. Pity.

Comments on the draft of “Architecture” section of The Island Character Design Guide, dated December 10, 2001.

I was at a Design Review Board meeting when IHOP representatives were told to look to the adjacent Taco Bell as an example of a building that was unobtrusive and blended into its environment.  It really does, even though it is “franchise”, “theme” architecture of a “distinctive vernacular style”, specifically “Mediterranean”.  I don’t happen to like the building but it fits in pretty well while violating every major tenant of the opening paragraph. The key points for this document should be “unobtrusive” and “set into the natural environment”.   “Unobtrusive” deals primarily with color, scale and the position of the building on the property, while “set into the natural environment” deals with another section of this document.  In general, the rest of the design guidelines outlined in this document have absolutely nothing to do with “Island Character”.

Applying these standards to the buildings built prior to 1980 from the Sea Pines Circle to Coligny Plaza would see at least as many as half of these buildings “inappropriate” or, at best, in need of “correction”.  If these pre-1980 buildings, which encompass the “Charles Frasier Era” are inappropriate then I can only conclude that the authors are trying to reinvent our “appearance, history and cultural heritage”.

The reference to light industrial buildings exhibiting “good Island character” is commendable, however, most of the buildings of this type approved in the last fifteen years are metal buildings with a false fronts and look like it.  Nothing in this document really addresses this.  We must insist on better design for these buildings.

“Franchise” architecture: McDonalds, Burger King, IHOP, etc. is also having a large impact on our environment.  In some enlightened places, these franchises are not allowed to repeat their typical buildings.  We have settled for a “softening” of their prototype but the buildings themselves could (and should) be considered “signage” and rejected under the signage ordinace.  They are too recognizable to be “visually harmonious with the appearance, history and cultural heritage of Hilton Head Island”.  A specific mention of how these building types will be dealt with is very important but missing from this document.

The condemnation of “distinctive vernacular styles” shows that someone didn’t pay proper attention in Architectural History class.  “Colonial” architecture is any building built in a colony.  Architecture in America during the colonial period encompassed several “styles”, Georgian, Federal and Adam being the most predominant.  While I agree that these styles are not appropriate, those with a prejudice against traditional architecture might also include any classical or vernacular forms under the “Colonial” label.

Honey Horn is about to become an Island History Museum.  This document suggests that this “Colonial Revival” building, along with the few “pre-development” (pre-1950) buildings remaining and the entire Civil War area boom buildings, is not part of the “history and cultural heritage” of the Island.

FORM

The term “form”, as used, seems to be an attempt to codify a specific type of form.  There are many examples of “early modern” Island architecture with low slope roofs and minimal overhangs.  With this document in place they could never be repeated, expanded or replaced because they will then be “inappropriate”.

The authors would have us believe that any unbroken plane is monotonous.  It is entirely possible and often preferable to have an “unbroken plane” as a backdrop to the landscape, rather than adding decorative elements so that the two dimensional drawing of the building looks more interesting.  “Visual interest and shadow play” are not dependant on “offsetting planes with a variety of depths”.  One man’s “visual interest” is another man’s “busy”.  Mass, scale AND proportion (a discussion of “proportion” is a huge omission to this document!) combined with detail appropriate not to “the Island” but to the building will result in a better level of design.

A steeply pitched roof with a large overhang may be appropriate for a wide variety of buildings, but there are many examples of good buildings designed early in the “modern era” of Hilton Head that have neither.  These buildings exhibit all of the characteristics of good design (mass, scale, detail, materials) but will now (and forever) be deemed “inappropriate”.  Also, isn’t the “width” of an overhang more important than the “depth”?

MASS

How the upper areas of a building are designed may or may not visually reduce the mass.  It is enough to say that a building must not dominate it’s surrounding with out requiring that “the upper areas” of a building must be detailed differently from the “lower areas”.  Please remember that what seems flexible today in time becomes an absolute.

SCALE

Looking at the Publix and Wal-Mart buildings as examples of large scale projects, it seems that one is more successful than the other because on the Publix building the “scale giving elements” are useful to pedestrians while on the Wal-Mart building similar elements are crowded with merchandise and unusable by pedestrians.  I believe we would have been better served if tall, dense, natural landscaping had been planted from the sidewalk to the building, omitting the “porch”. Then the scale of the building would have been reduced by the landscape, the building would have appeared less massive and a large paved area could have been eliminated.

In Scotland no commercial buildings beyond 5,000 square feet are allowed in villages and commercial buildings in excess of 15,000 square feet are only allowed in certain areas of a city.  This being America we probably don’t want to be that restrictive, however, large scale buildings, including “strip centers” really do have a bigger impact on our environment than smaller buildings.  They look the way they do not because they must but because it is a cheaper way to build.  On Hilton Head most tall buildings are condominiums.  These buildings, arguably, will have a more human scale because the building type requires more windows, porches, balconies, etc.; but  “super stores” and “strip centers” with their associated parking and need for visibility from major roads have “mass” that impacts the Island in a much greater way.  These have been dealt with as exercises in façade decoration instead of problems of “mass” and “scale”.  This document needs to address these building types more specifically. Also, is the “confinement or confusion” sentence really needed?  Can you give an example of an element that might “create a sense of confinement or confusion” and explain how it relates to the scale of a building?

DETAIL and MATERIALS

To say “a variety of architectural details are necessary for Island Character” is just not true.  There are many simple buildings with simple details that exude “Island Character”.  To “encourage” “strong, substantial fascia and horizontal bands” will legislate uniformity, discourage creativity and has nothing at all to do with “Island Character”.  I raise a similar objection to requiring a “variety of contrasting textures” to “provide visual interest”. There is nothing inherently incorrect, unattractive or contrary to the design principles stated elsewhere in this document about a “single material façade”, but rather reflects a prejudice by the authors.

COLOR

Although the color “blue” can be said to blend with the natural surroundings (the sky) of any site, I contend that blue is an inappropriate color for a roof, PERIOD.

CONCLUSION

Hopefully a document can be formulated that can allow creative designers flexibility to improve our built environment and give the Design Review Committee the guidance and authority to reject poor designs.  Unfortunately, as written, this document will only codify the lamentable status quo. The whole premise is riddled with inconsistencies, prejudice and flawed logic.  It will empower well-meaning citizen volunteers to reduce the architecture of our future to a formula to be repeated from building to building.  Warehouses, convenience stores, condominiums and super stores will all have steeply pitched roofs, with trellises, canopies and porches attached to multi-textured facades with horizontal bands and strong, substantial fascia.  We can sell tickets at the bridge with a full money back offer if anyone should be forced to look at anything that didn’t look like everything else.

Please do not adopt this document.

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About More Than Architects

I’m Rick Clanton. Michael Ruegamer and I are architects and the principals of Group 3 Design on Hilton Head Island, SC. We provide architecture and interior design services for homes in the US and the Caribbean Islands.
This entry was posted in architecture, classical, design. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Why Is My Town Ugly?

  1. Wendy White says:

    Very interesting Rick. I will pay more attention to the buildings as I drive around the island.

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