The Role of Style in Defining Architectural Excellence

The Role of Style in Defining Architectural Excellence
I’m thrilled to be traveling to Seville, Spain next week and blog about the experience for the American Institute of Architects. The AIA, through the Committe on Design, hosts a few conferences a year in cities with a robust architectural history. The fall conference features a mix of historical and modern buildings and sites, including the Old City in Seville, the Madinat al Zahra, The Grand Mosque, El Alhambra and, on a modern bent, the Metropol Parasol, Casa de Retiro Espiritual and the site of the 1992 World’s Fair. And the conference covers this wide-ranging assortment of historic designs under the title The Role of Style in Defining Architectural Design Excellence.

In the work In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki, (Leete’s Island Books, Stony Creek, CT, 1977) wrote, “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house (p 17).”

The shape of those parasols, the detailing and the expressiveness of the structure, facades and how they all fit into their contexts is what I’ll explore in this blog during the conference. I’ve got some ideas. I’m interested in hearing any of yours, too. What have you seen in Seville? What has moved you? What seemed like a big deal, a gracious act? What treated the street nicely?

Here’s a bit about me. I live in one of the United States’ most architecturally treasured cities, Charleston, South Carolina. The architectural importance of this seaside city is one of the reasons why I wanted to live here. Though America’s written history is shorter than Europe’s, this city has been urban since its founding. The density of living and made things shows up on any walk down any street, in the mix of dialects and characters (human and architectural). Incorporated in 1670 at the intersection of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, Charleston

“…attracted no less a mixture of people than New York or Philadelphia – English dissenters, French Calvinists, Scotch Convenanters, Barbadians, Dutchmen from Holland and New York, New England Baptists, Quakers, Irish Catholics and Jews – among others.” (G E Kidder Smith, A Pictorial History of Architecture in America, American Heritage Publishing Co, Inc, New York, 1981, p. 278).

“In that benign climate those diverse faiths and traditions fused into a civilization that was leisurely, cosmopolitan, and aristocratic.

Anyone who’s visited during July, August or September would question the benevolence of the climate here - the humidity can ruin your day. But most of the year, it’s an incredibly generative place, for me, and one in which landscape and climate is as powerful a force as any machine.

Virtually every family of importance maintained houses in both city and country. Seasonally, the rice aristocracy would flee the malarial marshes of their plantations and retreat to their town houses. Here the climate conditioned the art of building in special ways. The first floors of of these mansions were raised several feet above the level of the ground to counter the penetrating dampness, encouraging the ironmaster to forge curving stair rails and elaborate gates. Some stood sideways to the street with high-ceilinged, spacious rooms opening on porches and piazzas that faced gardens, in the manner of houses of the West Indies, whence had come many of the city’s residents, and so designed to mitigate the sultriness of the atmosphere and to catch every trace of a refreshing breeze. Here, wrote, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, “persons vie with one another, not who shall have the finest, but who the coolest house.”


In this, I think the similarities between Seville, Spain and Charleston, South Carolina, USA, are worth exploring. As I write this today, the high temperature in Charleston: 64 degrees. Seville: 63. Hmm.

I’ve put together a chart which captures some of my thoughts as I get ready for the conference. America’s major cities have some things in common with Seville. Primarily, the similiarity is an historically important port and a river (Los Angeles maybe less strongly connected to its river than other cities). That’s a good starting point for thinking about why cities are founded, and how they grow over time. Taking a lesson from Jane Jacobs, the mix of old, new, expensive, flimsy and all other sorts of conditions is what makes a city feel grown, and what makes living there inspiring, comfortable and mostly importantly, worthwhile.


NYC, NY, USA Chicago, IL, USA Los Angeles, CA, USA Charleston, SC, USA Seville, Spain
Port city? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
River(s) Hudson, East Chicago Los Angeles Ashley, Cooper Guadalquivir
Year of Incorporation 1653 CE 1837 CE 1850 CE 1670 CE 188 BCE?
Urban from its founding Yes Slow growth, then explosive growth Slow growth, then explosive growth Yes Yes
Length of written history 450+ years 400+ years 200+ years 400+ years 2200 years
Historic mix of religions Yes Yes Hmm Yes Yes
Distinctive arch. Style More than One Later - More than One
Later On Yes Yes



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