Reflections on the Christopher H. Browne Charleston Drawing Tour
Lead Instructor Stephen Chrisman reflects on the program as well as the rich architecture of Charleston
Following the success of the spring 2019 Christopher Browne Drawing and Study Course in Williamsburg, Virginia, the ICAA turned to the “Low Country” and the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina, with its wealth of architecture ranging from the 18th century to the present day. The three-day program was centered around measured, analytical, and perspective field drawing of historically-significant buildings and places in and around Charleston.
The ICAA's Drawing Tours explore the continuity and vitality of the classical tradition through its adaptation in unique contexts--and at all scales, from the city and its contiguous landscape as a comprehensive work of civic art to the architectural composition of individual buildings and the craft of architectural detail. The long-standing tradition of field drawing in sketchbooks – a method utilized by architects since the Renaissance – serves as a means to build a compendium of examples which can be drawn upon in the design of new buildings and places.
Participants met on Thursday evening at the College of Charleston for introductions and opening talks. The group consisted of established and younger architects, craftspersons, interior designers, and students. Nathaniel Walker, Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston, gave a keynote presentation on the history of Charleston's architecture. Nathaniel’s fresh perspective weaved together the social and architectural history of the region and made a compelling case for a classical language of architecture that is deeply reflective of a region’s multicultural history. The course was led by Stephen Chrisman, Clay Rokicki, and Michael Mesko. Stephen and Clay presented a historical background of field drawing, an introduction to sites and subjects, and an introduction to techniques deployed throughout the weekend.
Friday morning started at the City Market, one of the oldest remaining purpose-built market halls still in use in the country. The market, which originated in the 1790s, includes a prostyle tetrastyle temple-front hall surmounting a rusticated arcaded base. The building, which provides a visual termination of Market Street, was built in 1840 by local architect Edward B. White. The first drawings of the day included perspective sketches focusing on the temple form and its urban context, followed by measured drawings of details.
The next stop was the Miles Brewton House of 1769 by architect Ezra White, one of the finest examples of a Charleston double house. This unique urban residential type consists of four rooms separated by a central stair hall, with the front rooms typically larger than the rear two. One of its many significant architectural features is the beautifully-proportioned superimposed two-story portico, with Doric below and Scamozzi Ionic above, modeled after Palladian examples. Of particular note is the unique Chinese Chippendale detailing on the entablature.
As the house is privately owned, our arrangements provided access to draw and measure the front portico. However, upon arrival, the owner graciously welcomed the group inside for a look at the interiors, which feature extraordinary Georgian details and millwork.
The early afternoon was spent at St. Philip's Church, a National Historic Landmark constructed in 1850. Its landmark tower follows the English precedents of Christopher Wren and James Gibbs. One of the dynamic features of St. Philip's is how its Doric entry portico encompasses the sidewalk and is brought forward into the street, creating a visual terminus and signaling the importance of the building within the larger urban context.
A pleasant late afternoon walk north of St. Philip's took the group to the Aiken-Rhett House, run by the Historic Charleston Foundation. The original section of the house was built in 1820, with major additions and alternations in 1833 and 1858 The house, ‘preserved-as-found’, provides tangible evidence and examples of the changing character of classical architectural expression and detail.
On Saturday, the focus was north of Charleston, starting with Drayton Hall, one of the most outstanding examples of American Palladian architecture. Built in 1748, the two-story house originally had flanking buildings connected by a curving colonnade. The superimposed portico provided for comparison with the Miles Brewton House and precedents which served as inspiration for both houses such as Palladio’s Villa Cornaro.
The afternoon session was spent just down the road at Middleton Place, which is well-known for its elaborate gardens and remarkable terraced landscape aligned with the Ashley River. The original house was built in 1730’s, with two 2-story flanking buildings, of which only one remains. The afternoon was spent examining and documenting the formal and architectonic qualities of the landscape and garden elements, and details of the south flanker.
The final morning was spent at the College of Charleston, with the focus of study on the Porter’s Lodge of 1850, by architect E.B White, and the Blacklock House of 1800. The Porter's Lodge – a building type ubiquitous to Oxford and Cambridge colleges - is a rarity for American campuses. Its function as threshold between city life and scholarly pursuit and its hierarchy in the ensemble of campus buildings is given physical form in the material expression and rusticity of its Tuscan order.
The William Blacklock House, built in 1800, is another outstanding example of an urban double house residential type, and of architectural detailing inspired by the more attenuated and decorative qualities of the work of Robert and James Adam. The home features extraordinarily fine use of materials, including contrasting brown and red gauged and rubbed brick and marble. The control and restraint of architectural detail, in addition to the use of trabeated and arcuated architectural forms, is a lesson in how to communicate hierarchies in the composition of an elevation.
At the conclusion of each Drawing Tour, everyone lays out their sketchbooks to share their work and observations from the past three days. The discussion and variety of drawings affirmed that the study of precedents is best achieved through moving between the three types of field drawing deployed throughout the weekend: perspective sketches for studying character, form, and how buildings are situated within their contexts; analytical drawings for quickly studying larger aspects of a design, such as floor plans or elevations, and relationships to other buildings and spaces; and measured drawing - the most rigorous of the field drawing types – to examine specific details and aspects of a design, and to understand their scale as commensurate with human dimension.