Saturday, September 19, 2009

Urban Design: Charleston Waterfront Park

Waterfront Park's pier at sunrise.

Facing the city from the pier, aligned with Queen St beyond.

Charleston is probably the US's most prominent historic preservation city. Other cities had as much or more history, but they haven't matched Charleston's preservation efforts. The Preservation Society of Charleston preceded the National Trust for Historic Preservation by almost 30 years, and is one of the most successful preservation operations in the world. The National Park Service has a concise page on the means by which the city's preservation has been accomplished.

Promenade, facing north. The pier and Ravenel Bridge beyond.

Approaching the city by car from the west, you cross the bridge and see the skyline. Thanks to the city's building height restrictions, nothing exceeds probably four stories except seven or eight tall church steeples. All of them were built prior to enactment of the height restrictions.

Charleston holds a number of places that are rewarding to visit and to study. There are few places where urban design has been so interwoven with historic preservation. Even the most casual visit is rich in images, good restaurants and recreational opportunities. It's a world-class stop on any tourist's list. I recall one visit when standing on the outer walkway of the Waterfront Park's pier, a film crew was shooting scenes in a movie, and the Queen Mary II was part of the backdrop.
The Waterfront Park owes its existence to Mayor Joe Riley. Shortly after election in 1975, he began making plans for a park in that location. It took 15 years (Charleston doesn't have term limits for the office of Mayor,) but the park opened in 1990, even after damage during construction caused by Hurricane Hugo.

Shaded walk. A series of shaded "rooms" with chairs or
benches are to the left. One is shown below.

Designed by Sasaki Associates' Stuart Dawson, this park is a significant amenity in a city already rich in amenities. (Note, the link to the Sasaki site has an excellent aerial view of the entire half-mile-long park.) This design benefits from mature and refined judgment, in addition to plenty of talent. Too many efforts to design places of this nature contain overwrought, busy spectacle of too many "flowers" and not enough "grass." That is, special features are too numerous, so that they become undifferentiated and the design loses resonance and an appropriate sense of the drama that truly significant features deserve. This one gets it right. The ratio of "flowers" to "grass" feels perfect.
Special features here are the view of the harbor, Ravenel Bridge, Fort Sumter, the fountain, the pier, the long row of shaded seating areas, the promenade. All this is mentally framed within the adjacent context of the historic city. There is a serenity in the broad expanse of the harbor and the lawns, which act as background, or "grass" for the focal points, the "flowers," of this place.
The city is incredibly walkable - it's one of those places that, when you're driving, you immediately want to find a place to park the car so you can get out and walk - and each street in its historic area is a delightful experience. The beautifully appointed park offers a place to sit, take in the view of Charleston Harbor and the sea, watch people and rest before diving back into the often tighly-defined spaces of the streets.

Fountain. Formed as a pineapple, symbol of hospitality.
(Excellent photos of this fountain and the area are in anadelmann's flickr set here. )

Photos in this post are my own unless otherwise noted. You are welcome to use them as long as you give me credit, by noting

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