Sarah Corbitt-Intern Architect LEED AP BD+C

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The General Archive of the 1583 – 1646

Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

It’s almost our 500 year anniversary!

Spain had a thorough and meaningful influence on city planning on early America, although the legacy is not widely known. This legacy was a governing code of city development called the Laws of the Indies, issued formally in 1573. OK, so we’ve got a few years until that official issuance anniversary. But since the Committee on Design is visiting Seville this week, it’s a good time to visit the General Archives of the Indies and consider the influence of Spanish thought on the development of New World colonies.

Seville’s General Archive of the Indies maintains and collects documentation about those Spanish colonial campaigns. Here, the Indies are the Spanish colonies in America; there is also a collection about the Philippines. This grand building was originally designed by architect Juan de Herrara and built between 1583-1646 to consolidate and house the various marketeers and businessmen for the colonies. Later, the efforts were moved to other cities around Spain.  King Charles III in 1785 returned the headquarters to Seville and set about restoring the original building which sits today in the heart of Seville and next to the Seville Cathedral. It’s also near the bull fighting ring. This city’s got God, bulls, and business.

The resulting magnificent structure is Italianate, with extensive vaulting and a central courtyard. In 1987, it was listed as
an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Archive has a nice website, available here:





How important were the Laws of the Indies? Historian John Reps wrote:

Because of the relative inflexibility of Spanish colonial policy the regulations of 1573 remained virtually unchanged throughout the entire period of Spanish rule in the Western Hemisphere. Even beyond that time they influenced the plans of towns laid out in North America by the Mexican government after its separation from Spain. Literally hundreds of communities in the Western Hemisphere were planned in conformity to these laws – a phenomenon unique in modern history.

So, what are some of the highlights of the Laws? Would we know a town laid out according to Enlightenment-era Spanish city planning principles if we were in one? Think of St. Augustine, Florida.

Some of the major guidelines are:

  1. Select a good site with clean water and ample timber and natural resources;
  2. The city should be planned before any construction begins;
  3. The town should be planned with ‘cord and ruler’, with a central square and a layout such that the town can grow in a planned manner;
  4. The plaza or central square should be rectangular, at least 200 feet wide by 300 feet long, with a length one-and-a-half times its width;
  5. The plaza’s four corners should point towards the cardinal directions;
  6. Principal streets should lead from the midpoint of the town square out and two minor streets diverging from each corner of the square. The main streets are arcaded, and the square;
  7. Other town streets would be straight and at right angles to each other;
  8. Smaller open spaces would be allocated elsewhere in town to provide for churches and other public amenities;
  9. A town common would exist for livestock and agriculture;
  10. The town would be developed without natives present, so as to ‘wow’ the natives when they were allowed to enter.

The regulations were specific and practical, designed to plan inspiring and functional towns in the new land. These developments were also designed for defense, so that colonies could withstand invading armies and peoples (Reps, p. 29).

But form and order was seen as an important goal:

“If not started with form, they will never attain it.” was the written message to one colonizer (p. 28). And further, all the planning was to be done “…so that when the Indians see them, they will be filled with wonder, and will realize that the Spanish are settling there permanently and not temporarily” (p. 30).

Works Cited:

Reps, John W. The Making of Urban America. a History of City Planning in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

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The Role of Style in Defining Architectural Excellence

Friday, November 9th, 2012

I’m thrilled to be traveling to Seville, Spain next week and blog about the experience for the American Institute of Architects. The AIA, through the Committe on Design, hosts a few conferences a year in cities with a robust architectural history. The fall conference features a mix of historical and modern buildings and sites, including the Old City in Seville, the Madinat al Zahra, The Grand Mosque, El Alhambra and, on a modern bent, the Metropol Parasol, Casa de Retiro Espiritual and the site of the 1992 World’s Fair. And the conference covers this wide-ranging assortment of historic designs under the title The Role of Style in Defining Architectural Design Excellence.

In the work In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki, (Leete’s Island Books, Stony Creek, CT, 1977) wrote, “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house (p 17).”

The shape of those parasols, the detailing and the expressiveness of the structure, facades and how they all fit into their contexts is what I’ll explore in this blog during the conference. I’ve got some ideas. I’m interested in hearing any of yours, too. What have you seen in Seville? What has moved you? What seemed like a big deal, a gracious act? What treated the street nicely?

Here’s a bit about me. I live in one of the United States’ most architecturally treasured cities, Charleston, South Carolina. The architectural importance of this seaside city is one of the reasons why I wanted to live here. Though America’s written history is shorter than Europe’s, this city has been urban since its founding. The density of living and made things shows up on any walk down any street, in the mix of dialects and characters (human and architectural). Incorporated in 1670 at the intersection of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, Charleston

“…attracted no less a mixture of people than New York or Philadelphia – English dissenters, French Calvinists, Scotch Convenanters, Barbadians, Dutchmen from Holland and New York, New England Baptists, Quakers, Irish Catholics and Jews – among others.” (G E Kidder Smith, A Pictorial History of Architecture in America, American Heritage Publishing Co, Inc, New York, 1981, p. 278).

“In that benign climate those diverse faiths and traditions fused into a civilization that was leisurely, cosmopolitan, and aristocratic.”

Anyone who’s visited during July, August or September would question the benevolence of the climate here – the humidity can ruin your day. But most of the year, it’s an incredibly generative place, for me, and one in which landscape and climate is as powerful a force as any machine.

“Virtually every family of importance maintained houses in both city and country. Seasonally, the rice aristocracy would flee the malarial marshes of their plantations and retreat to their town houses. Here the climate conditioned the art of building in special ways. The first floors of of these mansions were raised several feet above the level of the ground to counter the penetrating dampness, encouraging the ironmaster to forge curving stair rails and elaborate gates. Some stood sideways to the street with high-ceilinged, spacious rooms opening on porches and piazzas that faced gardens, in the manner of houses of the West Indies, whence had come many of the city’s residents, and so designed to mitigate the sultriness of the atmosphere and to catch every trace of a refreshing breeze. Here, wrote, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, “persons vie with one another, not who shall have the finest, but who the coolest house.”

In this, I think the similarities between Seville, Spain and Charleston, South Carolina, USA, are worth exploring. As I write this today, the high temperature in Charleston: 64 degrees. Seville: 63. Hmm.

I’ve put together a chart which captures some of my thoughts as I get ready for the conference. America’s major cities have some things in common with Seville. Primarily, the similiarity is an historically important port and a river (Los Angeles maybe less strongly connected to its river than other cities). That’s a good starting point for thinking about why cities are founded, and how they grow over time. Taking a lesson from Jane Jacobs, the mix of old, new, expensive, flimsy and all other sorts of conditions is what makes a city feel grown, and what makes living there inspiring, comfortable and mostly importantly, worthwhile.

NYC, NY, USA Chicago, IL, USA Los Angeles, CA, USA Charleston, SC, USA Seville, Spain
Port city? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
River(s) Hudson, East Chicago Los Angeles Ashley, Cooper Guadalquivir
Year of Incorporation 1653 CE 1837 CE 1850 CE 1670 CE 188 BCE?
Urban from its founding Yes Slow growth, then explosive growth Slow growth, then explosive growth Yes Yes
Length of written history 450+ years 400+ years 200+ years 400+ years 2200 years
Historic mix of religions Yes Yes Hmm Yes Yes
Distinctive arch. Style More than One Later – More than One Later On Yes Yes


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Why I Decided to Convert My LEED Accreditation

Friday, February 4th, 2011

I recently attended a US Green Building Council Charlotte Region Chapter event on LEED AP credentialing and maintenance, as part of the process of ‘converting’ my general LEED AP credential to the more up-to-date designation of LEED AP With Specialty. As a Specialty, I’ve chosen BD+C, which is the USGBC’s acronym for Building Design + Construction. This is the rating system which is roughly equivalent to the New Construction rating system test that I originally took to become accredited.
Why would a LEED AP do this? As someone who tested under the LEED 2.2 rating system, I can opt (Option 1) to remain a LEED AP under all successive versions of LEED (we’re in LEED 3.0/2009 now) in perpetuity. And the LEED AP BD+C requires 30 hours of continuing education over 2 years to ‘convert’ (Option 2). With continuing education guidelines which are more stringent and also different than the AIA’s CEUs, I am looking at a lot of continuing education. And for what? Well, the benefits aren’t entirely clear right now – there’s no threat the general LEED AP designation will expire in the foreseeable future. But, I believe in trying to quantify the effects of good, green design choices, and it’s worth it to me to stick with LEED, and stay up-to-date. I’m also looking at the conversion process as a bonus for research that I would already be doing – might as well get the credential!
There is a third option for ‘converting’ to a specialty AP designation, and that option is retesting (Option 3). I’m more interested in the continuing education rather the testing, so the continuing ed makes more sense for me, right now. As usual, in design and sustainability, there are choices and trade-offs to be made, and no ‘wrong’ answer.

I’ll keep you posted on how the Credentialing Maintenance Program (CMP) is going – that’s the documentation of my continuing education hours.

For more information:

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USGBC: The Return of Precedent-Setting CIRs

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

The USGBC announced recently that it will bring back Credit Interpretation Reports for public use. Long a valuable tool for LEED project teams everywhere, the public, precedent-setting CIRs disappeared with the coming of LEED 2009. And the USGBC says there may be a format improvement, too. Whereas the old CIR database was confusing to use, search and refer to, the new CIRs may be issued on one single, comprehensive, easy-to-search document. This could mean big savings in time, money and emotional distress for project teams and LEED administrators.
More info:

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