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Disciplined in design, Moss Creek cottages spurred Lowcountry architecture's sensitivity to nature

Today's Lowcountry architecture owes a nod to cottagesin Moss Creek, which brought national recognitionto our area decades ago for their eco-friendly andinnovative design.

In 1980, the Salt Marsh Cottages in Moss Creek Plantation inBluffton won a merit award from the South Carolina chapterof the American Institute of Architects. Walter Netsch servedas a juror and commended Moss Creek cottages architect JakieLee's "excellent floor plans" as well as their connection to nature.Netsch was a dominant force at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill,America's most successful architectural firm at the time. He madea special point to highlight the compactness of the Salt Marsh Cottages'development as "ecologically responsible."

Lee's cottages showcased an emergingstyle influenced by Richard Pollman,Charles Moore and Frank Lloyd Wright.By the 1960s, Pollman had become influentialfor his idea houses and smallvacation homes envisioned for the rurallandscapes of the Pacific Northwest.Moore was leading domestic architectureforward with a provocative take onmodern design seen in several projectsin northern California.

Sensitivity to nature was a hallmarkof Wright's work, as nearby AuldbrassPlantation at Yemassee attests. LikeWright, Pollman's works often includedsimple yet strong roof shapes. Thesehighlighted the influence of Japanesearchitectural elements in Americandesign popular since the turn-of-thecentury.

One of the developers to study theworks and styles of the Pacific coastwas Charles Fraser of Hilton Head Island.Fraser flew several architects andothers to look at examples of the architecture.

By the late 1970s, development movedoff Hilton Head Island to Moss CreekPlantation. For the Salt Marsh Cottageproject, Jakie Lee indicates, "site wasthe first challenge."

Lee had no desire to render the cottageswithin a manicured landscape,but envisioned them as a partner to thesite. The question for Lee was "how tojoin them." Individually, the cottageswouldn't have complemented the sublimenatural setting. Working togetherin clusters, the units become moremeaningful. They connect in thoughtfulorganic patterns - something akin tothe organizing approach of Moore andPollman. These arrangements combineto create larger, singular statements thatare not overwhelmed by the expansivemarshscapes.

Today, Lee is happy that more than 30years later these cottages continue to"enjoy their site."

Disciplined in design, the cottages respectthe individual and their activitieswhile collectively they acknowledgelarger, more complex matters of humaninteraction. Governed by geometryand essential shapes - reflectingthe abstraction of modernists - Leecreated quality architecture on a budget.Natural materials provide contrastand enable the bold forms to beautifullyconnect to their environment.

Interior spaces in the Salt Marsh Cottageshave balance and pleasing proportionalrelationships. Light enterseverywhere and outside seems to mergewith inside through a generous numberof doors, windows and skylights. Openfloor plans in the main living area becamea popular trend in the 1980s but the1970s work on Hilton Head representssome of the earliest seen outside of LongIsland, N.Y., and the Pacific Coast.

At about 1,100 square feet, each cottage'sinterior possesses surprisingheight and volume. Soaring ceilings inthe living/dining and kitchen area morethan make up for the intimate size.

As Netsch observed, the quality ofLee's Salt Marsh Cottages and their sensitivityto site made them worthy of recognition.They are no less commendabletoday. In a world where we automaticallyexpress reverence for the buildings of theColonial Era, the Victorian Age and eventhe earlier 20th-cantury, it is importantto understand that the Lowcountry possessesoutstanding design from a morerecent past.

The Salt Marsh Cottages are one of thebest examples.

Jeff Eley is a professor of architectural historyat Savannah College of Art and Design.