Great art can be challenging. And while Wednesday evening's meeting to approve preliminary designs of Clemson University's new downtown Charleston architecture center wasn't quite as controversial as, say, the 1913 Paris debut of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or the original album cover for Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove, the Board of Architectural Review's 3-1 vote of approval came after no small uproar from Charleston's keepers of traditional building styles.
During the lengthy public comment section of the meeting, sculptor John Michel provided perhaps the most scathing critique of the thoroughly modern, glass-and-concrete structure planned for the corner of Meeting and George streets. He started with a jab: "It actually might look good on Upper Meeting Street, way up near North Charleston." Then he went for the uppercut: "Why in the world do a bunch of Martians want to invade this city and put up a trap that looks like something that Walmart would build?"
Audience members sat on the floor and stood in the aisles in the packed third-floor conference room where the BAR holds its hearings. Numerous neighborhood associations and preservationists had come to weigh in on the design, but the size of the crowd was also partly due to College of Charleston professor David Payne, who brought his historic preservation and community planning class to observe the melee.
The design had its supporters, including Winslow Hastie, director of preservation and museums at the Historic Charleston Foundation, who said he was "very encouraged by the design" and felt that "the boldness is a positive step." Also on board with the design were a few Mt. Pleasant residents and members of nearby Trinity United Methodist Church, as well as three of the four BAR members present.
Phyllis Ewing, offering a favorable review from the board, pointed out an absurdity of the public life of buildings in Charleston: "I think it's very interesting, when the Gaillard [Auditorium, now in the process of a $142 million renovation] came up and the neoclassical design was suggested, people came in and said, 'That's terrible. We should have a modern building.' What are we doing?"
Brad Cloepfil, an architect from Portland, Ore., who is working on the design for the new center with Charleston architect E.E. Fava, spoke first, offering a careful apologia for the project as he flipped through Powerpoint slides showing lots of clean white walls and natural light. He flashed pictures of classic Charleston scenes — a second-story porch, a stucco wall teeming with ivy, an elaborate circular ironwork — and explained, "I wouldn't call it direct precedent. I would call it inspiration." From the Meeting Street side, the building appears to be divided into three tall, narrow sections, evoking the "rhythm," he said, of the Charleston Single house, building block of the downtown cityscape. "From the very beginning, we wanted to make a beautiful building and an elegant, quiet, and calm building," Cloepfil said.
Stephen Hanson spoke on behalf of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association, which voted unanimously to oppose the design last week. "We were told that the overriding design motif is the Charleston Single house," Hanson said, "and we feel this is a flawed assumption, that they probably should have used an existing public structure from some other institution rather than a residential design."
Architect J. Ross Johnson Jr. drove down from Charlotte to voice his opposition to the design on "technical and philosophical" grounds and to present his own hand-drawn alternate design. In the base case, he said, the 30,000-square-foot structure is too large for the lot. He also urged the architects to include solar panels on the roof and noted after the meeting that a building with that much glass would have a hard time meeting seismic building codes in historically earthquake-prone Charleston.
One George Street resident caught a quaver in her voice as she said, "I personally appreciate the art. I really do, but it saddens me — it saddens me to see that building next to that beautiful, historic Spoleto building." The new three-story building, planned to replace a one-story former dialysis center at 292 Meeting Street, will indeed have as a neighbor the stately George Street headquarters of Spoleto Festival USA, which is sure to make for an anachronistic contrast. But later in the meeting, the board announced that Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden had written a letter endorsing the new building's design.
Opinions among the four members of the BAR in attendance were more favorable than in the public comment session, with three members speaking enthusiastically about the design. The only dissenting vote came from acting board Chairman Robert DeMarco, who said the plan "falls short in harmony" with surrounding architecture and noted that "to call this a Single house connection is really a stretch." He also criticized the serpentine concrete screen over the glass windows, which he said struck him at first as looking like "two huge lips," and added that he felt the structure as a whole would not age well.
BAR member Bill Wallace praised the design for being an example of "inspiration, not imitation," and noted that he felt the board had quashed a lot inspiration over the years: "I'm afraid that what we've done with the BAR over the years ... is we intimidate people to bring to us only those things which imitate the past, rather than being bold and stepping forward with something that should be a move into the future."
To see a PDF with more images of the Clemson architecture center's design, click here and scroll to page 23.