charleston’s forgotten wharf

charleston, sc
design proposition
with  sam zeif

...60% of all american slaves arrived at
ghadsden’s wharf, yet there is little trace – 
how should charleston remember?

Charleston celebrates a specific history -- curated, heroic -- and barely whispers another, as if in passing -- horrific, inhumane. Few understand that it is the site of the largest influx of African American slaves into the US (between 40-60%), or that the low country has continued to explicitly dispossess its African-American population.

Throughout its history, it has been built for one population at the expense of another - a systemic and institutional inequity employing the built environment as its tool. This has ranged from overt stealing [from the Gullah Geechee] through violence [heirs property], to segregation through redlining, to erasure through urban renewal. Today, the city allows a “free market” to overwhelm affordable black neighborhoods while neglecting their public infrastructure.

Charleston is two cities [with two histories] dressed as one. We read the city as it presents itself to us. In its permanent self-evidence, the built environment masquerades as itself, hiding the forces that produced it. We necessarily believe the history in front of us [picturesque downtown and neglected east side] and can’t access that which has been erased. This is what makes the built form of the city so powerful — we take it at face value! The more that we build under this belief, the more true it becomes and the less capable we are of resisting it.

A living preservation engages the perpetuity of history in space to produce new public resource.

At Gadsden’s, we saw the potential for two modes of occupation and added resource. First, is to uncover the material remains of the historic site — both as an academic investigation and as a symbolic process of uncovering an overwhelmingly ignored history.

Second, is to bolster the ongoing work of institutions like the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, whose archive and scholarship is compromised by a lack of funding, space, and constant risk of flooding.

Together, they reorient the precinct towards its erased history by turning the dominant access of Calhoun Street and unveiling its historic fabric.

“I believe unconditionally in the ability of people to respond when they are told the truth. We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than affirm.” Septima Clark, one of Charleston’s heroes who penned this quote, is fittingly (tragically) memorialized by the cross-town highway that erased and split apart this historically black neighborhood. An act of erasure remembered as an honoring memorial. 

We propose that preservation is not the curation of a frozen history through vertical surfaces, which necessarily defends what is already built, it is the revealing of an ongoing history. It is a productive, not preventative, act. Instead of facades, plaques, and monuments -- which mark, but rarely change -- a living preservation engages the perpetuity of history in space to produce new public resource.

As Sharpe asks, “How does one mourn the interminable event?”  The typical mode of dealing with the past in the city is either a monument or a museum. We see this happening with the IAAM, which will be built on this site. No doubt significant, both suffer from the same inability to participate in the collective consciousness of the city beyond their simple presence as objects.

What if, instead, we dealt with the past not through objects, but through the appropriation of existing conditions? Reappropriation derives significance not from itself, but from an active interface with its site, both culturally and physically.  In this way, we are weary of eliminating, through material form, the human obligation to remember.  We should not just mark space, we should occupy it

The counter-monument is concerned with the re-appropriation of an existing condition. It is by definition reactionary and cannot be the reason for its own being. Here, it manifests from the reality of the ground and the truths it holds.

“It is only history turned into a pedestal, an invitation to passersby who stand upon it to search for the memorial in their own heads. For only there is the memorial to be found.” (Hoheisel) The most important “space of memory” for the counter-monument is not in  the ground or above it, but that space between the viewer and his own memory: the place of the memorial in the viewer’s mind, heart, and conscience.

The surest engagement with memory may be perpetual irresolution and debate; “only an unfinished memorial process can guarantee a life of memory. The finished monument completes memory itself, puts a cap of memory work, and draws a bottom line underneath an era...” that is in reality ongoing.

A new memorial takes shape through revival of the canal that once serviced the slave port (and whose imprint is left in the median of “freedom lane”). One enters the site through an infrastructural lock holding apart a shallow reflecting pool towards Calhoun and a walled canal towards the water. Here, between two heights of water, the axis shifts.

Through it, the visitor gains access to an exhibition about the site’s history, active sites of excavation and recreation, and an embedded gallery of relevant archaeology and art.

America has never yet taken on the project of excavating its African American history. Instead, it tends to knowingly build on top of it, be it a slave burial site or an important building foundation. It is a history long ago deemed either unimportant, or more likely, erased. At this site of paramount importance, then, there exists a potent vacancy. Through excavation and revision, the monument takes shape through the continuous act of discovery.

Emerging from the terminus of the new axis is Charleston’s tallest building, standing higher than its church spires and condominiums. While the archaeological precinct explores the long forgotten histories of the ground, the tower celebrates the ongoing research of scholarship at places like the Avery Institute, whose collections, despite their profound importance, are constantly threatened by flooding and disrepair. The tower apotheosizes documents and artifacts by reconstituting them in the sky, in visual juxtaposition to the city they represent.

The building is a public facility, accessed through the memorial canal, and providing a newfound relationship with the water and an unprecedented view of the city. At its base is a new dedicated ferry launch that will send and receive boats traveling to Sullivan’s Island and St. Helena’s Island. The first, the primary site of arrival, where slaves were held in ‘pest houses’ until deemed healthy enough for arrival in Gadsden’s. The second, the site for continuing survival of the Gullah Geechee culture, which manifested out of the sea islands.

The tower is the archive. Its walls the vessel.

In varying degrees of storage and porosity, the monolithic walls carefully hold and celebrate the documents and artifacts of the surrounding history. Emerging from DuBois’ Paris Exposition of 1900, which amassed photography and data of the African American community to demonstrate its profundity and beauty, this archive presents the opportunity for elaborate and comprehensive display...in the sky.

The unique addition it makes to Dubois is the capacity to position the exposition in juxtaposition to the world it depicts. Documents and artifacts will always be seen alongside a view of the Atlantic ocean, the city, the horizon, the sky.

At the top is an open-air viewing deck, providing an otherwise absent position to re-view the city and its context. The apogee of a memorial sequence, the opportunity to look back, and down, is the counter monument.