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Telling a Story in Stone

Motoring down the Canale Grande in Venice one evening on vacation with our sons, David eyed me as I gazed intently on the parade of palazzi we passed.

“It’s like reading music to you, isn’t it Dad?,” he remarked. I hadn’t been thinking of it that way, but he was right. And yet it was more. Each of those stone buildings had stories to tell, as John Ruskin had written 150 years earlier in The Stones of Venice.

Architecture at its best is both music and narrative: a kind of opera carved from light into the darkness. In order for a work of architecture in Savannah to have a chance at greatness, it must begin with a great story to tell. Certainly this story grows from its purpose—whether it be a sanctuary, or a grand hotel overlooking our harbor, or just a shady place to rest. That is not enough though. The story must also inspire the observer to wonder: What makes this place so memorable?

In our firm, we begin a project by asking what that story must be. Sometimes it’s historical, like The Florence restaurant at One West Victory, which was originally one of the South’s first commercial ice factories. Other times, the story springs from the natural environment, and how we intend to enhance it.

For the new Cultural Arts Center for the City of Savannah, it began with this purpose: To provide a place where all people could gather and share their works of art, their stories, and their aspirations. We called it “pollination,” and our motto became “a forum, and not a temple.”

Pollination is only possible with a gathering of many, so our design became an open embrace for the community, and an inviting attraction for artists to work, learn, and share ideas. Each studio and performance space invites all to be more than just spectators; they, instead, become participants.

Our narrative—pollination—became the way that everything about the design for the place revolved around sharing and collaboration. This also included the way we worked together on its design, and the way that we invited our community to be involved in the process.

Like frozen music, architecture has important stories to tell. In Savannah, those stories are further enhanced by their “back-stories” and their “secrets.” More about those in future installments!


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