Have you ever wanted to learn more about Savannah’s robust architectural history, but didn’t know where to begin?
The YouTube channel, “Urban Traces,” created by Savannah College of Art and Design Chair of Architectural History, Dr. Robin Williams, is like a free college-level course that offers an engaging look at the many qualities of Savannah’s varied architecture and urban environment.
Williams began shooting the series when SCAD switched to online learning in the wake of COVID-19.
“All of these videos I’ve been creating each correspond to a class that I teach in this course called Architectural History in Savannah,” explained Williams. “That was the pretext for creating the videos”
Williams moved from Toronto, Canada, to Savannah with his wife and first child 26 years ago to help SCAD create the Architectural History department. As chair of the department and the author of the guidebook “Buildings of Savannah,” Williams has amassed a huge amount of information about Savannah that he wanted to share with the broader public. The “Urban Traces” video series was a perfect opportunity to instruct his students while also informing a wider audience.
“My students account for about fifty viewers,” said Williams. “Everyone else who watches is a bonus as far as I’m concerned.”
The videos, which range from 45 to 60 minutes (with many more shorter ones to follow after the school term is over), cover a variety of subjects including churches, the waterfront, the Central of Georgia Railroad complex, and City Hall. As of this interview, Williams was finishing up a video about Savannah’s suburbs, highlighting changes that occur in urban design as you move further south from downtown, such as more green space, an emphasis on recreational activities, and the shift in social norms from the Victorian age.
“It’s just a trajectory,” explained Williams. “You see the houses progressively, incrementally, move farther back from the curb, the yards get bigger, the houses go from being very upright and, urban, and tall, three story houses, to two story houses, to one story houses. It’s the same amount of interior square footage, it just spreads out to the bungalow and ranch styles of the post-war years.”
Williams began shooting in March, just as the city was shutting down in response to COVID-19, so he used his connections with various historical sites to get access to shoot videos while they were shut down. Another unexpected effect of the shut down was the empty streets and lack of traffic.
In a video about Broughton Street, for example, the area is remarkably devoid of other people, offering a perfect opportunity to explore the city without distraction.
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“It was both strange and a blessing,” said Williams. “Whenever I’m on camera, my wife is my videographer, so now when we’re out shooting these things, as the city comes back to life, the number of vehicles, motorcycles, leaf blowers, you name it, a noise nuisance that can interrupt the flow of the recording of a video...I look back on the middle of March and think about how lucky we were, fewer people, cars, distractions. It was both eerie and really handy to not have a busy city to videotape in.”
In dapper suits and an ever present fedora (at least outside), Williams has a relaxed persona that keeps the viewer engaged as he points out fascinating tidbits that normally go unnoticed. Williams even gave a TED X talk three years ago about pavement and encourages anyone interested in exploring Savannah to make sure to look down, as well as up, since Savannah has more pavement variety than possibly any city in America.
“Savannah has a very distinct urban identity with its broad streets, squares, trees, and the buildings,” said Williams. “It all comes together in a very symphonic way, and I think that really appeals to people, whether you’re an architect, an urban planner, or just a general tourist. I think that’s an aspect of Savannah that’s very captivating.”
“I think there is a level of appreciation for Savannah everyone can take in, but I think what might be most taken for granted is how complex Savannah is. Savannah is this multi-layered onion.”
Another metaphor Williams uses in his first video is of the old manuscript term from the middle ages called a “palimpsest” where old writing is erased to make room for new writing, but traces still remain. The name “Urban Traces” comes from the idea that “the layers of history leave a residue.”
“Savannah is an old city, but what is fascinating about it is just how many of those layers are retained, whereas in other cities if you have to install a new curb, you rip out the old curb,” said Williams. “But in Savannah they leave the old curb, even if it’s six inches away from the new curb.”
“You’ve got all the old pavements, fragments of old buildings sitting attached to another building, and the way so many buildings are retained but adaptively reused. I don’t think the average person truly appreciates how much of that building has been transformed over time, let alone the urban plan.”