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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Afternoon at I'On

As a relative newcomer to the Charleston-Savannah area and a recent college graduate focusing on Traditional New Urbanism, seeing examples of TNU developments in the area was high on my priority list. I’d heard great things about I’On from friends and professors, so that was a must-see for me. As soon as I could come up with an excuse to drive up to Mt. Pleasant, I gave myself an afternoon and decided to see it for myself. 

I was not disappointed.

Though there are certain overlaps in its design strategies with most other New Urbanist communities, I’On is uniquely and unequivocally Charlestonian. The only other large-scale New Urbanist development I’ve been to is Celebration, Florida, which I’ve visited a few times with family. What I’ve found to make a great TNU development stand out can only be discovered when you get out of your car and walk it. Whereas in other developments, you won’t miss anything driving past at thirty-five miles per hour, an exceptional development leaves prizes scattered about for the pedestrian. One of the most enjoyable parts of meandering through an urban environment is to come upon a vista—a framing of a particular space or structure by other buildings or natural features. It’s hardly accidental, but is usually the result of intention on the part of the urban planners and architects. It is these vistas and the plethora of small, precise details that work together to separate the mundane experiences from the memorable. It’s just as wondrous at a distance and it is under close inspection.

I’On isn’t afraid of a few wrinkles in her dress. It’s not afraid of crooked streets creating sharp, triangular parks, usually overgrown with vegetation climbing up fences and an abundance of trees that help to add character to the built environment and provide for a unique experience walking down the street. I could have parachuted right into I’On blindfolded, had my blindfold removed, and been convinced I was standing somewhere in a historic area of Charleston as opposed to a development outside of it. The character of Charleston is perfectly captured. The houses are where they should be—closer to, engaging, and acting to frame the street. Just like an enormous puzzle, it’s not simply a “collection of many great houses”, but instead fits and functions together to produce a wonderful community.

I love that each corner of I’On feels unique. You don’t know what you’ll see around the next corner (and you can actually walk through it all, the size is not daunting). A street could end on-axis with an impressive house or a church. The terminus of a street is not an “accident.” Everything feels deliberate.

My favorite moment was looking through a canal framed on both sides by houses and trees. Just where the vanishing point of the perspective should be was a grand house with a temple front looking over a lake. There’s such a care in the way I’On was designed that makes the whole so enjoyable. It is architecture and urban planning working together, and the end product is something far greater than either of them could have achieved on their own.

Writing and Pictures by David Easterday,
Designer at Brown Design Studio

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