Praising the proposed Clemson Architecture Center 

Tradition Versus the Future

I looked around the room at the recent Board of Architectural Review meeting as the comments were wrapping up on the proposed Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston.

The 40-plus seats were occupied by mostly well-heeled gentility, what we'll call the standard bearers of tradition. On the floor, standing along the room's perimeter and overflowing into the corridor were a generally scrappier, noticeably younger, and potentially hipper group. Let's call these individuals the future of Charleston.

For the record, I was there to support the proposed design. However, I was a bit reticent since I've had a 23-year-long friendship with the project's architect Brad Cloepfil of Portland, Ore.-based Allied Works Architecture, and because at one time I had been a short-listed competitor for this project along with my teammate David Adjaye of London-based Adjaye Associates.

The comment session closed and the BAR offered the team an opportunity to respond to the crowd. Cloepfil and local architect Eddie Fava generously noted that the proposed building had already begun to accomplish what it was designed to do — start an ongoing discussion about architecture in today's Charleston. After that, the BAR staff and Historic Charleston Foundation, one of the city's preservation organizations, announced that they supported the building's design with detailed and thoughtful critiques. A palpable sense of relief prevailed.

The new three-story, 30,000-square-foot building is set to replace the existing single-story brick building at the intersection of Meeting and George streets. The Clemson Architecture Center is also shouting distance from the rather proper offices of Spoleto Festival USA, the mysterious headquarters of the Washington Light Infantry, and the College of Charleston's gargantuan TD Arena. Once the proposed Clemson center is completed, it will sit confidently and rather elegantly in the city like an exotic, interesting guest at one of Charleston's poshest parties. The design is flat-roofed and set to be covered with plants, and it will feature broad expanses of glass and be shaded by a series of undulating screens of perforated concrete. Each one of these features bucks tradition. How can this be?

Imbued with sensitivity to the city's unique historic fabric, Cloepfil has reached back to what has influenced the area's historic buildings — the control and celebration of daylight, the use of horticulture in a temperate climate, the texture of urban streetscapes, and the day's prevailing construction technologies. Along Meeting Street, the proposed Clemson Architecture Center echoes the dominant pattern of narrow, vertical standalone buildings in Charleston, while the height is several feet lower than the adjacent historic buildings. At this stage, the elements of scale — gestures that allow us to experience, understand, and appreciate the overall size of a building — are mostly hinted at through the use of grand shifts and openings that articulate the different stories of the building. The refinements and details that will not only grab but hold our attention remain literally up in the air.

So we return to the conundrum of tradition and the future and how the architecture of today can enlist the past to inspire the future. The Clemson Architecture Center raises this expectation. For many years, the idea of a significant "modern" building in Charleston has seemed like a remote possibility. The desire to see interesting buildings successfully integrated into Charleston's fabric have seemingly occurred in isolation. You certainly sense it on Upper King Street, where businesses are scrambling to find office space embedded into the city streetscape so that they can capitalize on the intellectual, economic, and creative capital downtown.

Interesting new architecture becomes critical when you realize that more families with young children are opting for urban living in Harleston Village or Wagener Terrace rather than in the remote suburbs. They have a fundamental desire to live within a community that engages their more modern sensibilities in collaboration with the surrounding history. They are lured by actual social interaction as an antidote to the virtual workplace. They enjoy the creative energy of an urban environment and recognize this as a source for economic opportunities. And new buildings are part of the equation. It's being done in Knoxville, Tenn., Austin, Texas, and Savannah, Ga. There is no reason that Charleston must slip into a historic stupor like Venice, Italy, or Bath, England.

The future Board of Architecture reviews of the Clemson Architecture Center — preliminary and final — will certainly bring out more crowds, both with drastically differing opinions. And in the meantime, the more traditional-minded folks will be sharpening their knives in hopes of cutting this design's life short, proclaiming that the center is not in harmony with the rest of Charleston.

Whether Cloepfil's final design will rise to the occasion remains to be seen. The Clemson Architecture Center's success will hinge on how the next details allow it to transcend function and effect, introducing richly layered meaning without resorting to rhetorical motifs and iconography. Based on what I've seen so far, I believe the final design, inspired by the city's rich history, will meet expectations. And Charleston's architectural future promises to be better for it.

Whitney Powers has practiced architecture, parenting, and downtown living in Charleston for a long time.

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