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written by
Hailey Wist

The Kiawah Vernacular

photographs by
Hailey Wist

Volume: 33

Since the early nineties, Shingle-style architecture has become the predominant style on Kiawah Island. Just as Mark and the partners had hoped, buildings like the Beach Club and the River Course Clubhouse have influenced a particular Kiawah-specific aesthetic. Wind through shady neighborhood streets of Kiawah, and these fundamental philosophies are evident.

Architecture is one of the great expressions of modern society. From the humble home to the great civic structures of the world, buildings are the very foundation for the comings and goings of mankind.

In this sense, the built world is always linked, inextricably, to a people, to an environment. So often, the allure of a building correlates to its integration into the natural surroundings, the way it corresponds to the ebb and flow of the community at large. And isn’t that a wonder? That we can look upon a building and find it beautiful, inspiring, exalting? In its loftiest interpretation, architecture is a conversation with the past, present, and future of humanity. 

“Design is fundamental to the longevity and relevance of a community,” says land planner and architect Mark Permar. Permar has been involved in the development of Kiawah Island since the late seventies and has played a role in the Island’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) for nearly four decades. In a sense, Permar has embodied the through line, acted as the showrunner for the development of the Island. As such, Permar was at the table in the early days with the development team, setting the tone for what became the architectural vernacular of Kiawah Island.

Today Kiawah boasts some of the most impressive real estate numbers in the state, but in the late seventies, it was a sleepy barrier island with a collection of beach bungalows. “From the beginning, we knew we had to lead by example,” Permar remembers. “We were never going to build all the homes, so we wanted to make choices that would influence the organic evolution of the community.” Looking back, Permar traces the origin of the current Kiawah design aesthetic to a few specific buildings: namely a residence on Flyway Drive, designed by Connecticut firm Shope Reno Wharton (SRW) in 1993, and the Beach Club, designed by New York firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA) in 1994. 

The partners were drawn to the Shingle-style architecture prevalent in the northeast. “It was forgiving, and we could adjust it,” remembers Permar. “It could come down here and live.” It was paramount that the dominant architectural style fit seamlessly into the natural landscape. Buildings needed to work within the island’s extraordinary oak canopy and sensitive dune-field, blend with the ever-changing textures of its leeward marshland.

When Shope Reno Wharton was commissioned to design a private home on the Island, no one at the firm had ever heard of Kiawah. Well known for their acumen in the Shingle-style genre, SRW executed a previously unseen design and craftsmanship in the private home. “We introduced a different mindset, a new level of quality in both design and materials,” says Jerry Hupy, principal at SRW. According to Permar, the private home heavily influenced the decisions not only of the master developer but also of property owners going forward. It was a house like no one had seen on Kiawah at that time, with mahogany windows and a terne-coat stainless steel roof. “It’s solid,” laughs Hupy. “People said that if a hurricane comes, go to that house on Flyway.” (At the time of the commission, there were a few Shingle-style homes in West Beach, but these were more in the bungalow style of northern California and the Pacific Northwest.) 

Designing the Beach Club, Robert Stern and his partner Roger Seifter were also coming from the northeastern interpretation of Shingle-style—that of the holiday homes of the Hamptons and Nantucket. But the Clubhouse was RAMSA’s first Shingle-style project that wasn’t a private residence, and thus it posed an interesting challenge. Ultimately, they designed it as they would a big, rambling house. “It’s meant to have a residential feeling in the way that pre-war clubs used to have,” says Gary Brewer, partner at RAMSA. “It helped establish a vernacular for Kiawah. We thought that was a pretty good starting point.” Property owners building homes quickly adopted the same colors and materials, the deep porches and ipe wood decking.

These two buildings set the tone and, in a way, introduced Kiawah to the world of more elevated architecture, a loftier vision for the future. It resonated with property owners. Within a few years, Shingle-style homes were popping up all over the island. Then, in 2002, the Kiawah Island Golf Resort commissioned RAMSA to build a clubhouse for Pete Dye’s Ocean Course on the east end of the Island.  Completed in 2007, the Ocean Course Clubhouse  became another strong, highly visible symbol of the Island’s Shingle-style identity, especially as the Ocean Course hosted tournaments televised around the globe. The Beach Club, the Ocean Course Clubhouse, and SRW’s commission set in motion a standard for design that would define the community for decades to come.

Both Brewer and Hupy came to Kiawah for the first time in the early nineties. Throughout the following decades, both architects took lead positions on Kiawah projects. Hupy and SRW designed several more hallmark homes, the first River Course Clubhouse, and the Cassique Clubhouse. For Brewer and RAMSA, the Beach Club and Ocean Course Clubhouse projects led to commissions for more houses, and, more recently, the current revitalization of West Beach Village. Between them, the two firms have designed the vast majority of Kiawah’s communal spaces, and so it is safe to say they know the island, its natural environment, and its people well. 

Both architects came to their careers with an early love of drawing and an interest in art. Perhaps this creative bent lends itself to a more intuitive understanding of architecture as a holistic discipline. For Brewer, architecture is deeply rooted in history and tradition. Initially, he was drawn to Shingle-style design in the early years of his career because it flew in the face of the prevailing modern and postmodern trends of the time. Similarly, Hupy links Shingle style to a cultural nostalgia, early notions of leisure time in the mid-century milieu. Their respective philosophies on the built world—and Shingle style in particular—reflect these expansive paradigms. They have approached each project on Kiawah with creative intuition and with a larger understanding of the role of architecture in the cultural consciousness. 

“On Kiawah the landscape is primary,” reflects Brewer. “Shingle-style plans are broken down into smaller masses that ramble through the landscape, deflect to the landscape.” In color and material, Shingle style blends seamlessly into the maritime forest and finds easy harmony with the vegetated dunes. Unlike more formal styles, this rambling format can work with existing tree canopies and the particulars of a site. “For me, having the building fit within the site makes the biggest difference in the entire project,” says Hupy. “As every detail comes in, the building starts to work its way back into the ground and nestle in.” What’s more, the informal format lends itself to function and use, the floorplan can be configured any which way.

Just so, the way we use buildings, the way we feel when we occupy a beautifully designed space, all plays to the design. “When you go into a space, there’s an experience,” explains Hupy. “Whether it’s how you approach the building, the landscape, the furnishings, the textures, the volume of the room…everything has an impact.” Hupy likens an architect to a quarterback in that good architecture amplifies talent from all disciplines to create a dynamic whole—from landscape to interiors to fine finishes like iron working or stained glass. 

Furthermore, both architects would argue that siting is everything. Good architecture responds to its environment—natural light, breezes, how a building is situated to the views, the trees. During the design phase, Hupy takes his time getting to know a site, seeing it at all hours of the day to note the way the light shifts over the land, the direction of prevailing winds. Also, understanding how to truly work within a site can dramatically affect scale, or at least the impression of scale. “One of the things people say about our homes is that they don’t look that big,” says Hupy. “But there’s a beautiful scale trick going on.” A home might be well over ten thousand square feet, but a thoughtful integration to the site can hide square footage. 

Since the early nineties, Shingle-style architecture has become the predominant style on Kiawah Island. Just as Mark and the partners had hoped, buildings like the Beach Club and the River Course Clubhouse have influenced a particular Kiawah-specific aesthetic. Wind through shady neighborhood streets of Kiawah, and these fundamental philosophies are evident. The houses look as if they’ve been there forever, graceful neighborhoods tucked into the fold of a centuries-old maritime forest.

It is important, however, to note that this evolution is due largely to the creation of a thoughtful, comprehensive building covenant. Both Hupy and Brewer give a lot of credit to the oversight and guidance of Kiawah’s ARB. The covenant is written so beautifully, Hupy explains, that it allows for individual homes to be expressive without disrupting the general architectural vision of the community as a whole. Because real neighborhoods are varied, they are a collection of diverse characteristics that somehow still adhere to a subtle set of unifying principles. Kiawah’s ARB is strict enough to ensure a level of tasteful cohesion but loose enough to allow neighborhoods to evolve organically. The Kiawah Partners and their team are largely to thank for this soft touch. “It would have been easy to tighten the rules, prescribe a specific style and not allow diversity,” says Permar. “But it’s worth taking a risk because it can lead to great things.”

With the multi-tiered revitalization of West Beach Village, RAMSA is adding another significant ingredient to the Kiawah vernacular. The new Cougar Point Clubhouse, completed this summer, introduces colonial architecture, a bit of formality. “We wanted to do something a little bit different for Kiawah,” says Brewer. “The colonial style clearly has a kind of architectural grandeur, but it’s comfortable. There’s nothing about it that feels intimidating.” And in a way, introducing a fresh design interpretation keeps Kiawah relevant. “Bob Stern says that architecture is not an autobiography, it’s a portrait of a place,” reflects Brewer. “One of the things we enjoy about the projects we do is to see how a built project affects the culture of an institution and a community. It sounds a little hokey, but it’s really satisfying.”

On a sunny afternoon in June, a south wind buffets the Beach Club. Pelicans fly in lazy lines over the roof, riding the updraft from the Atlantic. The Beach Club in high summer is a sight to see. The length of the building runs parallel to the Atlantic, opening to an expanse of pool, porch, and a white canopy of umbrellas. Since opening its doors over twenty years ago, this Clubhouse has been the epicenter of the Kiawah summer. The greatest buildings, the ones that remain in our memories, are the ones we really use, the places and spaces that provide the backdrop to our lives.  — H.W.

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