Soul and the City 

Walking and talking with Savannah's architectural conscience

Like Rome, Jerusalem, and other old cities where historical majesty coexists with the everyday realities of paying bills and finding a parking place, it’s easy to lose perspective here.

Yeah, yeah, we Savannah residents adore our public squares and charming buildings. We understand (and encourage) outsider fascination with our small Southern city and its unique past. We take pride in General Oglethorpe’s 1733 use of public spaces and how that unique plan served Savannah for almost 300 years.

But as we go about the daily business of living, wrestling with property taxes and the effects of local politics, the layers of history melt on top of themselves like an ice cream sundae in August.

We tend to forget this city was built—and continues to be built—by human beings, for human beings, and that the sum of what came before continues to inform what happens now—and later.

Christian Sottile, architect, urban planner and recently appointed SCAD Dean of Building Arts, wants to make sure we remember. Born in Florence, Italy and an architectural apprentice at age 14, he graduated as the valedictorian of the SCAD Class of ‘97 and received his Masters at Syracuse University before settling back into the city he calls “a living laboratory.”

Through their award–winning practice, Sottile and his wife, Amy, have had a guiding hand in countless global enterprises as well as several local civic projects, including the redesign of Ellis Square, the new SCAD Museum of Art, the planning of the still–beleaguered east riverfront development (which Sottile counts as a success for its inherent inclusion of public spaces) and the upcoming redesign of the I–16 onramp area on MLK Boulevard.

Sottile applies a philosophical tone to his work and is known to describe Bull Street as “Savannah’s spine” and certain buildings as having “faces.” Last spring, his TEDx talk “The City is Human” inspired me to look at my surroundings in a whole new way, one that allows ownership and inclusion in the ongoing story of our city.

I thought that if everyone who lives here saw him or herself as part of Savannah’s narrative, it could do more to unite us than anything on the political level. So I invited Professor Sottile out of a walk on one of those gorgeous sunny afternoons that make us all feel superior for living here.

Passionate and enthusiastic about what’s ahead for Savannah and the future of cities in general, one of the world’s foremost visionaries in urban life graciously led me on a tour of our collective “living room.”

Here we are on Madison Square, heart of the historic district. Beautiful, as always.

Christian Sottile: Yes, it’s like an outdoor room, isn’t it? It has all the quality and intimacy of an interior space, composed of these smaller details like the benches and landscaping. We’re automatically a part of this broader conversation. It’s because of the dominant role of public space—approximately 40 percent including the squares and streets —that makes this a great place.

What else makes Savannah a great place, planning–wise?

Christian Sottile: Savannah has the smallest city blocks of any city in America. Most cities have two to three hundred blocks per square mile; Savannah has over 500. What that means is that buildings can come and go, ideas can be beneficial or damaging, but whatever happens, the whole organization sticks together because of the dispersion of public and private land.

That’s the universal lesson we can take to the future. If we can look at cities as collective organizations of public and private interest together, even if there isn’t agreement all the time but there’s a sounds mechanism for those discussions, we’re building places that have a future.

We can see it the architecture: Look up here at the Scottish Rite Temple, which towers above the townhomes next to it but resolves its larger scale by lining up its cornices with the roof lines of surrounding structures. Radically different, yet they work together.

How does the future work itself into Oglethorpe’s plan?

Christian Sottile: Here on this square, we have SCAD’s Poetter Hall, the old National Guard Armory. This was SCAD’s first building, built on the Bull Street Corridor, Savannah’s “spine.” By opening up to Madison Square, SCAD connected with the public realm, and what would be a private quad on a traditional university campus is a reversal: Students are citizens of the city, and citizens are part of the university. It was the first gesture SCAD made and it was very prophetic, since the institutional expertise of SCAD has become so woven into the fabric of the evolution of the city.

Savannah’s renowned as a walking city. Why isn’t everywhere like this?

Christian Sottile: Again, the disposition of the blocks are so small, you can navigate through the city at a pedestrian pace with complete choice. It’s a very nourishing experience. That’s what we need to bring to other districts and to the rest to the world.

In the late 20th century, not just in Savannah but all over America, we made choices that were irrespective of pedestrians. We built entire systems that were detrimental to creating places like Savannah. In some engineering circles, pedestrians are considered impediments to vehicular movement. In fact, by modern standards, the proximity of intersections would probably be illegal now, from a traffic–planning standpoint.

So Savannah could never be built today?

Christian Sottile: Almost everything here would be an exception to the rule. Our role in the School of Building Arts is to challenge these conventions, to work to create places that are nourishing to the human experience. We have to find ways to make places like Savannah work. We’re fortunate to have this as our laboratory. This isn’t a theory, it’s all evidence–based.

Chippewa Square and those lovely curved benches, my favorite.

Christian Sottile: Here the idea of city as living room becomes completely evident. We have Gallery Espresso and the transparency of its facade, massive windows that literally connect interior and outside, several functions meeting at this crossroads.

 The building is actually a collection of building tied together, a metaphor for this city that’s been built as layers over time. That composite of architecture tells the story of who we are and where we come from: It’s not “either/or,” it’s “both/and.”

I hear church bells—we must be close to Liberty Street.

Christian Sottile: This is a good place to talk about the role of civic architecture in Savannah. Look at the Independent Presbyterian Church, a landmark structure: The expression of its steeple is intentionally a way of understanding where the building is wherever you are.

You can look up and see the top of the steeple and know exactly where Bull Street is and where the institution is. That’s a very time–honored way of thinking about civic uses in cities: Private buildings stay low, civic buildings reach up so they become part of the overall form.

How does the notion of shared spaces like our squares and civic buildings make for a better city, lived in by better citizens?

Christian Sottile: They engender a sense of shared responsibility. They make us want to take ownership. Though we may have different agendas, we can know that this is something collective that we own, need to protect and take pride in. Great places have the power to make us care about them.

Unfortunately, so much of contemporary planning and practice is building places that are inhumane, so we don’t love them like people. We need to return to a place where there’s a decorum and dialogue between public and private realms, where we build places that communicate we have a confidence in the future. Building places like Savannah naturally leads people to love them and care about them.

But what are the solutions for the unlovely parts, like suburban sprawl and ugly industrials areas? Does architecture have solutions?

Christian Sottile: I think the answers lie in the form of the “next city.” We’re currently going through a global economic reset, and what that means for the built environment is that everything we’ve been doing for the last century, meaning the outward migration from cities, is collapsing, and we’re coming back to city centers.

The next city is going to look very different—it will look more like historic Savannah. There aren’t that many places where you can experience it firsthand, and there are students learning this globally who will be making field trips here to learn it about it. This city is a laboratory for the future.

Where else in the world is this reform happening?

Christian Sottile: The Netherlands emerges as one place where a lot of intelligent work is going on. It’s partly because they’re land–constrained, but they’re building these compact settlements that are enlargements of historic cores.

You can get on a bike in the middle of Amsterdam and ten minutes later be in Borneo–Sporenborg, a docklands reclamation that’s become residential waterfront. But they’ve built it with the confidence that it will be there in hundreds of years. They use all the same quality that you would in the historic core.

You use the materials you expect to be there forever. You build so more people can live like in a city center, but on a human scale.

Now we’re looking at the Civic Center. Is it as hideous as everyone says it is?

Christian Sottile: This is actually very instructive. We see how the public realm dominated this moment in time, where ten city blocks were collapsed into one with a building that’s irreconcilably large.

As a piece of architecture, it was done with great sincerity and great quality. We can actually walk through the middle of it since it lines up with the streets and squares, showing that architects took into account the larger history and lines of the city.

It was built 1968, and a lot of things were going on in Savannah at that time. It was seen as one of things that would save the center city.

Are all buildings worth saving?

Christian Sottile: It all has meaning. How we interpret it and our value judgments are also part of the historical record.
We have to stop separating ourselves from history as something we either preserve or walk away from. We’re living with our history, we’re adding to it. It’s a fundamental part of our reality. If we don’t, we’re erasing the possibility of cultural memory to evolve over time.

We’ve hit MLK Jr Boulevard. Can you talk a little about the plans for I–16 flyover?

Christian Sottile: We’ve been working with Metropolitan Planning Commission to develop a civic master plan for reclaiming and restoring the historic Frogtown and Currytown neighborhoods while still facilitating movement in and out of the city. Mayor Jackson remembers those neighborhoods before the demolition of Union Station, and this idea of restoring and revitalizing the West Boundary is one that touches a living memory.

Wow, we’ve crossed the street straight into the courtyard of the SCAD Museum of Art.

Christian Sottile: That was intentional. We wanted to create a connection between the building and the rest of the city, and we designed it to unfold as a series of experiences.

In terms of the civic, we conceived The Lantern, which communicates the building’s position and adds a glowing element to the Savannah skyline. With it, we’re participating in the larger form of the city and joining in the conversation civic leaders started centuries ago with the church steeples.

The humanity is everywhere, especially in the materials, from each reclaimed brick that embodies a story and the blue stone that required a human hand to refine. We wanted people to be able to engage with building—that’s why the engraving lettering on Turner Boulevard is low enough to touch.

This building takes us into a new era of asking questions of how history informs the present and future. When you inherit a ruin, what to do you do with it? It’s not an all or nothing proposition. What if you created something interdependent on the past, present and future and that’s what illuminates the way forward?

As Dean of Building Arts, you now oversee a shipload of different disciplines, from historic preservation to urban design to furniture design. Your mind is obviously pretty big, but how are you going to wrap it around them all?

Christian Sottile: Well, I think that the museum is evidence of how all of these different disciplines can collaborate on a tremendous level. Once those perceived boundaries are gone, there is so much potential for the future. Under my leadership, I hope to educate and shine a light on solutions for that “next city” while navigating the global shift. The rules are going to be different, and in Savannah we’re uniquely positioned to provide authentic answers.

This city is ours. We have to stay awake, and keep a historical perspective on urban development. Preserving the past and developing the future isn’t an all or nothing endeavor; it’s a question of how do we absorb this layer into the ongoing evolving city.

This city has enormous opportunity to continue evolving. We need to remember to take the long view.


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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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