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July 27, 2012 9:47 pm
As a man who loves snowboarding, traditional French cuisine and the Alps, South Carolina’s hot and humid “Low Country” is an unusual base for Frenchman Bruno Sutter. But for Sutter, who is a traditionally trained craftsman, the historic city of Charleston answers both his personal and professional passions. Perched at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and Ashley River, Charleston is best known for its trove of pristinely preserved Colonial and Federalist-era buildings. It’s also the home of the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) – the country’s only higher education institute offering a four-year degree in the trades of pre-industrialised Europe and America.
Founded in 1989 by local preservationists and politicians, the ACBA recruited Sutter in 2005 as a professor of timber framing – the ancient art of hand-binding wooden structures. Sutter was one of the school’s first hires, lured from France where he had recently completed more than a decade of timber framing training with the Compagnon, a collective of artisan guilds that has educated craftsmen since the Middle Ages.
With its equal focus on practical and theoretical instruction, Sutter’s ACBA professorship offered a hands-on opportunity to put his Compagnon education to work. “I wanted to help set up in America the kind of training system we have in Europe,” he says, “but in four years rather than 10.”
Despite a year-long stint working for a timber-framing firm in New Hampshire as part of his Compagnon work, Sutter says he had “mixed feelings” about Charleston when he first arrived. On the one hand, the city’s compact, pedestrian-friendly layout and strong historical roots felt familiar and approachable.
“With no skyscrapers and excellent preservation, Charleston feels much as it did 200 years ago, but is still big enough to feel like a real city,” says Sutter, who lives just outside of the city in a two-bedroom condominium he owns on James Island, a short drive from Charleston’s city centre across the Ashley River. “It’s certainly among the most ‘European’ of all American cities,” he adds. The area’s rich architectural detail and heritage serve as a laboratory of sorts for his classwork.
But Charleston’s stifling summers and flat terrain meant an end to Sutter’s beloved snowboarding and Alpine hikes. Today, he has traded his snowboard for a surfboard and rides the waves of Folly Beach close to Charleston, or drives down to Coco Beach or St Augustine a few hours south in Florida. “When the waves are good, I try to surf as much as I can,” says Sutter, who teaches both in the ACBA’s main Charleston campus in a restored 210-year-old jail and in its satellite workshop close to his home on James Island. The best waves, however, are down in the Osa Peninsula on the pacific coast of Costa Rica. There Sutter has set up a small construction business applying traditional timber-framing techniques to tropical wood structures. “Most of my time off from the school is now spent in Costa Rica,” says Sutter, who often brings ACBA students along for laborious and adventurous summer internships.
Besides wood, Sutter says food is his other main passion and – along with Alpine snow – one of the things he misses most about Europe. He’s found good wine and decent dining in Charleston, but still longs for the French dishes of his youth. Despite Charleston’s much-lauded culinary movement, his favourite dishes are hard to come by in the south. It’s not just the food itself, Sutter says, but the ways his family both sourced and consumed them. “I grew up in the countryside where my parents had a large garden which grew much of what we ate,” recalls Sutter, who was raised in the Alsatian village of Grussenheim close to the Franco-German border. “Everything was natural and organic – there were never any pesticides used – and this is what I miss most,” he says. “Along with how the French eat – sitting down, with proper lunch breaks and enjoying life instead of just focusing on making money.”
Unsurprisingly, slowing down and enjoying Charleston has become a priority for Sutter – despite his class-work and Costa Rican side projects. Indeed, the notion of “slowness” runs throughout much of Sutter’s history – from the decade he spent mastering timber framing, to the substantial time required to meticulously put the technique into practice. Living on James Island – with its shady, open spaces and relaxed vibe – is a relief from Charleston’s tourist throngs as well as its higher housing costs. “Life is easy in Charleston,” says Sutter, with the laid-back ease of a stereotypical southerner. “Even if it is just too hot and humid during the summer.”
Even in the heat, Sutter likes strolling along Charleston’s palmetto-lined streets. He often stumbles across churches or homes filled with the type of timber frame work that he so admires. They’re remnants not only of America’s past, but of Sutter’s own past back in Europe. And sharing these finds with his students, he says, is as thrilling as discovering them. “I want to show them that it’s about making things that will last, and not just making them fast,” he says. “We are not merely creating for a single generation, but for centuries – and Charleston perfectly demonstrates this ideal.”
● Charleston’s small size and orderly streets are pedestrian-friendly
● Elegant, colonial-era architecture throughout Charleston’s historic core
● The city is emerging as the hub of “New Southern” cuisine
● Extremely hot and humid summers
● Property in Charleston’s colonial-era centre is expensive
● Although Charleston is progressive, South Carolina is squarely in America’s conservative belt
What you can buy for ...
$100,000 A one-eighth share in a one-bedroom apartment at The Residences on King – a new fractional ownership development in downtown Charleston
$1m A three-floor, three-bedroom stucco and red-brick home on Magazine Street in the heart of Charleston’s historic core, originally built in 1775
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