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February 23, 2010
by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York

As the Grassroots blizzard blanketed DC, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said, “I’ll talk about the art that we must all be committed to, the art of creating and maintaining beautiful and livable cities. Cities must be places where everyone’s heart can sing.”

Mayor Riley, who has worked long and hard with the American Architecture Foundation to educate elected municipal leaders about the importance of design said, “In the art of city building we must first seek not to make any mistakes. In Charleston we had made some mistakes, but we were determined to build beautiful and affordable housing. There is no excuse for building anything in our city that isn’t beautiful.”

Based on his experience in Charleston he was able to say, “One of the great challenges of city building is the restoration of downtown. The fact of the matter is that downtown is the public realm. It is where your citizenship is reinforced and where the rich and the poor can come together. Those are the reasons why the restoration of downtown Charleston was so important.”

Perhaps it was obvious to everyone in the audience, but in the context of the transformation of Charleston, his comment that “in an urban setting people don’t like to walk past vacant lots” took on new meaning: “In Charleston we got new shops downtown. It was great for our city. We got good design, good storefronts, at a human scale.”

Riley continued: “Saving buildings makes a difference on the street, even if you are saving a three-story building just to make sure that the ground floor is active.” He quoted Louis Sullivan as having said that form follows function — in Riley’s estimation that doesn’t mean that a parking garage has to make a big deal about showing off the cars parked there. He suggested the use of louvers, saying, “You don’t have to see the cars to have parking downtown.”

His speech was full of anecdotes and stories, including case studies of specific buildings in Charleston. But one of his tales that particularly resonated with the issues of downtown’s special places had Vincent Scully and Louis Kahn walking around Red Square and, as he put it, “One said about St. Basil’s, ‘Isn’t it lovely how it hits the sky?’ and the other said, ‘Yeah, but isn’t it so lovely how it hits the ground?'” From this Mayor Riley deduced that, “This is what great cities do. They have rules. We study what the city needs to be.”

A lot of his remarks at Accent concentrated on specific public spaces, including parks. For example, “When people say why build parks, that parks take property off the tax roll, they don’t understand what makes cities great. We’ve created the most lovely places. Every park design is different. Parks can be reposeful places for busy people in the center of a city. When you build a beautiful public realm, the private investment follows.”

“Charleston is a city you can walk,” he said. “Not having to drive downtown, and not having to find a parking place has saved a lot of marriages. The trams go where people want them to go.” He continued, “Let’s say that all of us here agree with all this, but what about political support?” His case studies described public engagement in the process and the outcome of decisions about public projects and spaces. He quoted a gun-toting security guard at a downtown liquor store as thanking him (during a purchase) for creating a park “that was the prettiest thing he ever saw.”

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