Story by Hailey Wist
Photographs by Patrick O’Brien
The Kiawah architectural vernacular has been a careful evolution. So many communities are built all at once, the three- or four-year building period a chaos of construction. And those communities, like it or not, have innate cohesion, continuity. But that was never going to be the case for Kiawah. And so we find harmony in the continuum: a Lowcountry cottage can sit neatly next to a modern home if the core values are intact, if the materials and palette are congruous.
It is, and always has been, about nature here. Designing with nature was the central mandate of the original master plan. How to develop gently, carefully within the natural environment, as part of nature. With the creation of the Architectural Review Board (ARB), the goal was to steward this original vision. Of course, individual expressions of architecture are vital to an authentic community. But the ARB has shepherded the architectural identity of Kiawah Island with an essential question—is the building sited in response to the natural environment, the canopy structure, the maritime breezes?
The depictions below are grossly imperfect. Even within tight genres there is always evolution. Is it Arts and Crafts? The better question might be: Is it Arts and Crafts during the Art Nouveau period? Of course you can’t draw distinct lines around any of this. Style and trend will always be moving targets. But it is a satisfying exercise to make loose associations, to track the subtle evolution of taste over time. And it is subtle. As Mark Permar, longtime land planner and resident of Kiawah, explains, the best expressions of architecture adhere to a set of core qualities. From Lowcountry Cottage to Coastal Modern and everything in between, the best buildings on Kiawah Island are disparate iterations of the same fundamental values.
The Coastal Cottage
In the beginning, architecture on the Island was secondary, a backdrop to the natural environment. The early cottages around West Beach were modest, and they used natural materials that blended with the environment. It was, Permar tells me, modeled after Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island. Indeed, the initial development team at Kiawah pulled talent from the Sea Pines project, and there was much overlap in those early days. And to understand the origins of that style, Permar looks further back to the original spirit of Sea Ranch. The famed community just north of Pebble Beach took a kind of pared down approach to the traditional Nantucket shingle-style home. It brought a West Coast sensibility to the timeless, Northeastern style by modernizing the massing, simplifying roofines, and eliminating embellishments. Communities like Sea Pines and Amelia Island borrowed from this subtle-but-sophisticated style. By the mid-seventies, the Lowcountry Cottage was very much en vogue along our southeastern coast.
The old Inn was built in these early days, a modestly scaled resort, rambling and sandy colored. Kiawah was still relatively unknown, and owners were building quaint beach cottages as opposed to the grand and elegant homes we see on the Island today. It was a different time. Wild horses still roamed, and the Inn offered jeep rides down sandy roads to the end of the island, then a dense jungle of maritime forest. The architecture is identified by simple detailing, shingle siding or horizontal shiplap in muted, natural colors—browns, tans, and dark greens. Homes built in this style are modest in scale and built to blend with the environment, with low massing, larger window openings, and quaint rooflines. The modest cottages around Sparrow Pond and Night Heron Park represent this early era of architectural history on Kiawah.
“Long before we consider style during the design process, we analyze the unique characteristics of a site. Tree canopy and topography guide massing, while sun patterns and breezes inform programming. We want a home to be grounded in the natural environment from the start, like it has always been there.” – Amanda Mole
New England Shingle Style
As Kiawah grew, so too did its houses. The late eighties saw an influx of architectural influences like Italianate columns and Georgian rooflines. The Kiawah Partners wanted to guide this growth, to be intentional about the evolution. The Club was beginning to take shape, and amenities were in the works. They brought heavyweights like Tom Fazio, Tom Watson, and Pete Dye into the mix to build golf courses. And as Kiawah began to attract more talent, its reputation grew. It was a time of great opportunity. In 1994, the partners engaged Robert A.M. Stern Architects, a prominent New York firm known at the time for its classic Northeastern style. Stern and his team executed New England Shingle Style really well, and the application on Kiawah would set the tone for years to come. The Beach Club, so elegant and timeless, did indeed send a positive message of the role of design through the community with an intention of leading by example. The weathered shingles, the classic roofline, the siting that so attractively married to the dunescape and the Atlantic beyond—it set the standard for the kind of place Kiawah could become.
Soon, shingle-style homes were under construction all over the Island. They used natural shingles, ipe decking, gambrel roofs, and wide verandas. This shift, or rather coalescence of style, took place just as Kiawah was hitting the world stage. The Ocean Course hosted the Ryder Cup in 1991, and for that dramatic week of golf, all eyes were on Kiawah Island. And so as prospective buyers came calling soon after, the Island had an established standard for quality and style. Of course, one can never pinpoint linear cause and effect in situations like these, but it does seem that The Beach Club and several shingle-style homes created this fortuitous ripple effect.
“Ideally, you want architects to pick up on the spirit of the original vision. But one style doesn’t prevail over another. Kiawah allows for everything to coexist. And if this is a healthy community, it will continue to evolve”. – Mark Permar
The national exposure in the early nineties created a shift in the culture and identity of Kiawah Island. Owners began building homes larger than their primary residences, creating gathering places for family and friends. And as the footprint of homes grew, the graceful Southern mansion became a more reasonable proposition. It is, of course, impossible to separate Kiawah from the influences of Charleston and the South writ large. Notes of colonial, classical revival, Federal, and the like began to appear. Columns, shutters, and painted clapboard paid homage to Southern history, to the classic Southern ideal. The Village at Turtle Beach exemplifies this kind of “white picket fence” archetype.
Arts and Crafts
Originating in Britain in the late 1800s, the Art and Crafts movement has been a dominant influence on architectural expressions throughout the nation, indeed the world. A precursor to modern architecture, Arts and Crafts buildings emphasize simplicity, quality of material, and the importance of setting and the natural world. These values can be seen across the Island and expressed in a variety of styles, but the creation of Cassique and its quaint garden cottages defines the Kiawah Arts and Crafts style more specifically.
The Cassique Clubhouse, with its dramatic facade and sloping buttresses, is modeled after the original Arts and Crafts-style manor houses of late nineteenth-century England. Throughout Cassique, plaster and tabby homes echo the clean lines, proportional massing, dominant roof forms, and mulled windows framed by ample wall planes. The neighborhood nods to the British country estate that, despite its grace and simple grandeur, is identified by its lack of embellishment and its emphasis on craftsmanship. Throughout the island, the more modern, American expressions of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic are simple, with tapered columns, clean lines, and natural shingles.
And time marches on as it is wont to do. Genres unfold and expand. According to Permar, the emergence of progressive architecture on the Island introduced a more pronounced relationship between inside and outside. “These homes are inside-out buildings,” he explains. “It’s more about the experience of being inside the building than seeing a building from the outside.” And conversely, it’s about bringing the outside in. Thus the window openings are much larger, the structures unadorned and simple. The massing is different too. These modern expressions of architecture often have impressive height to take in sea or marsh views. There are detached guest houses, studios, and bedrooms healed into the landscape. Again, the emphasis on environment—to live in these homes is to be in constant communion with the trees, the light.
In a way, the modern home is a new take on the first cottages at Kiawah with its emphasis on environment. The architecture is meant to be a backdrop to nature, to frame it in subtle splendor. There are several hallmark iterations of the Coastal Modern style scattered across the Island but perhaps most concentrated in Ocean Park. Flat roofs and large single panes of glass peek out from the shady canopy of live oaks. And strangely, these modern homes don’t seem to clash with their more traditional neighbors. They are just different expressions of a fundamental code of color, material, scale, and siting. It is inspiring, somehow, to see these contrasting aesthetics standing side by side, at once the same but different through shared values.
“These more progressive expressions show that there can be multiple solutions to achieve the same objective. They don’t exhibit normal structuring but instead break down scale and blur the lines between outside and inside. It’s more about the experience of being inside the building than seeing a building from the outside. And it’s all about the natural environment. The materials are natural and the colors blend into the tree setting. It’s warm, inviting, and peaceful.” – Mark Permar