Last October, when world-renowned architect Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture in Portland, Ore., presented his initial designs for the new Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, the crowd at the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) meeting turned a skeptical eye to his sleek, modern mock-ups for the northeast corner of Meeting and George streets. One audience member memorably compared it to a Martian Walmart, while others said it just didn't fit in among the historic building styles of downtown.
The BAR gave initial approval to the scale and height of the building last year, but soon Cloepfil will make a presentation about specific design elements in a more stringent second round of review. He will make his case before the BAR on Oct. 23 at 4:30 p.m. at 75 Calhoun St.
On a recent trip to Charleston, Cloepfil stopped by for an interview with the City Paper. He was joined by Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center.
City Paper: Is there a particular school or tradition that you were working in with this project?
Brad Cloepfil: Style, you mean? No, I mean it's a piece of contemporary architecture that's taking its inspiration from this place. We're trying to make the most specific piece of new architecture we could make that could only be built in Charleston, S.C. That's the goal. So it's not like anything I've done before; it's not like anything I'll do again. The interesting thing for me, which I try to do in every project, is to try to find the architecture in the institution and the place that you're serving.
CP: One thing you brought up before was the inspiration from the Charleston Single, which some people saw in your designs and some people didn't.
BC: It's just the scale when you see the façade. If you look at the bank next door, it's a big mass, it's just a big box. So we were given roughly 30,000 square feet, and we wanted to break the scale down. And that's part of what the three bays are, and that's part of recessing the back, so in the back it's really two bays. So it's really just from a massing perspective.
CP: You've worked in a lot of different cities. In terms of how difficult it is to get through the approval process and the level of involvement from city government, where does Charleston stack up? Is it especially difficult here?
BC: No, genuinely it's not. All cities now have this public process, and from what I understood ... I think it started here. (Ray Huff: Yeah, that's right.) But Portland has it, Berkeley has it, New York City has it. So you get a lot of impassioned folks that get to have a voice in their city. It's just part of doing work. It's entertaining, as you saw, and it's exciting. What was exciting about the last BAR meeting, too, is I think we engaged people's curiosity.
CP: Were there any ideas or critiques from that meeting or other ones you've had that you've taken to heart and changed the design?
BC: It's the same as working with a client. Clients will say things that you try to resist, and then you think a little harder, and you know, they're right.
RH: Design is an evolutionary process. It's not some great inspiration; it's really an evolutionary process where it develops and matures and grows as you move through it.
BC: Well, and fresh eyes have insight. You know, we've been working on this thing for four years, and so you get a fresh pair of eyes, and even if it's just a layperson that doesn't know much about architecture, they'll make an observation, and you just go, "Oh my God, they're absolutely right." Maybe you go back to the drawing board. So there are a lot of issues that came up, and there are five, six, seven issues that we're addressing that we'll present our response to at the next BAR meeting.
CP: What are some of those issues?
BC: A lot of them have to do with the entrance. A lot of them have to do with the detail and materiality. When we got the project, we talked about this. A lot of the reason people resist contemporary buildings is because they don't have the detail and the craft. They don't have that sense of being made. We're trying to find that in this building. In all of my work, one of the primary inspirations is natural light. And so in Charleston we have this intense sunlight, which is what has created all those piazzas and all those shutters and screens, so we're trying to address a lot of those issues with the language of contemporary architecture but take the inspiration — you know, we did a lot of photo work and research and walking around and just looking at color and character and scale ...
We're looking at finishes now. It is a white concrete building that we're really trying to render to have the quality of almost limestone. So you take this sand and rocks and shells that you get here and excavate here, cast them in the wall, and then grind or blast the finish so that you get something that looks quite limestone-like.
CP: The one dissenting voter at the BAR last year said that it wouldn't age well, that the concrete would weather and get ugly too quickly.
BC: I think people have been abused by concrete buildings in the past. Concrete is one of the most durable — it's no different than stone or brick.
RH: I think what people don't realize, too, is stucco is made of cement plaster. So many of the characteristics are similar in terms of how it manages and holds up to this kind of environment.
BC: You know, I think a lot of the reaction — and this is kind of philosophical here, dangerous turf — a lot of people's reaction to contemporary architecture is because they've seen bad contemporary architecture. And so I think architects have dug their own hole to a certain extent. I think once people see things that are more responsive and thoughtful and particular to place, and hopefully beautiful, then people start to get attached to it. That's certainly been my experience. When you do contemporary work, whether it's Charleston or other cities, people are nervous about it. They haven't seen it before. But once it's built, they usually fall in love with it.