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Monday, April 18, 2011

CNU Beaufort Article Series: “Res Privata”

What makes up the Private Realm? In short, it is composed of the everyday common things in people’s daily life. These things include our homes, our garages, our yards, and the basic places we get our daily needs from, our stores and typical places of employment. All of these things form the backdrop of our lives and provide the basic urban fabric that we inhabit. A great Private Realm provides the largest single defining attribute to a region’s built character, more so than the architecture of monuments. It is easy to tell if you are in Charleston’s peninsula, the French Quarter in New Orleans or Old Town Alexandria. The common buildings there all share the same vocabulary of vernacular architecture. They also form a pallet of background fabric that reinforces the notion of a place while also allowing the place’s Res Publica or monuments/landmarks to clearly standout. The vernacular architecture of the Res Privata, has certain characteristics that allow it to be a great sense-of-place builder. It must have a modest beauty, an economical sense, an honest use of local materials and adaptation to local conditions, and a clarity of form & typology. Beauty, in modest domestic architecture, comes from simple mass, proportion and rhythm. These three principals are typically driven by proportions found in nature or the “golden section”. These proportions are common to our human bodies and thus we (unknowingly) find them comforting.

Common background architecture must, by definition, must be economical and reproducible by the common people of the region that it originates from. Patterns and principals are the method by which all these goals are accomplished. Stylistic choices give individual touches to each building but each house on a street should have more in common with its neighbor than different. Vernacular architecture is necessarily very much linked to local climate and local materials. Here in Beaufort, the common materials are wood framing & siding typically on a raised foundation. The raised foundation helps to cool the building along with a taller ceiling height. Porches shade the hot summer sun while protecting large tall windows from rain. A house built in New England, would look very much different
Clarity of form and typology means that buildings read as they are. Houses look like houses, stores look like stores very much like how a cat looks like a cat and a horse looks like a horse. Confusion comes from buildings which look like a cat but function like a horse. Or worse yet, are a Frankenstein like creation. The background fabric of a place should be predictable, not nervous or confusing. Great Cities, Towns and Places have Great Public Realms. These are the collection of background fabric buildings that we may not notice as individual pieces, but that we do notice on a collective level. Ideally, this background architecture, has its own distinctive vocabulary derived from the local region. This architecture is not static, it can and should adapt as time moves on. Beaufort has a distinctive vernacular style as does the Lowcountry as a whole. Having our new growth use this DNA as a starting point is the key to growing from what we are, not growing away from what we are.

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