The proposed Clemson Architecture Center is already behind the times 

The New Old School

The proposed Clemson Architecture Center is a product of flawed thinking


The proposed Clemson Architecture Center is a product of flawed thinking

Creating a city where roots grow deep, community and culture thrive, and economic opportunities abound is at the heart of every good design philosophy. Yet the idea that the proposed Clemson Architecture Center will be a salve to Charleston's architectural shortcomings comes from an out-dated and unsustainable design philosophy. While being touted as "bold" and "contemporary" by the architectural establishment, from the vantage point of the next generation, Clemson center is already behind the times and will not be a lasting fixture in our cityscape.

Many of my generation have become disillusioned by the homogenization, abstraction, and standardization of contemporary culture. Instead, young people spanning the whole spectrum of cultural activities — from music to cuisine, painting, and urban design — are rediscovering richness, complexity, and rootedness in our culture's living traditions. In short, we are not a generation inspired by the homogeneity of white bread, but by the bread whose ingredients have been locally sourced and rolled by hand. And we are attracted to the city not for the promise of shiny buildings, but because the city is where cultural traditions and local economies are most vibrant.

The contemporary landscape has, no doubt, influenced the direction my generation looks for inspiration. As we begin to engage with issues affecting the wider community, we can't help but notice our parents' legacy all but falling down around our ears. The past several generations' obsession with architectural contemporaneity has blinded them to the most basic tenets of building science. Statistically speaking, many of the buildings constructed in the 1950s need to be overhauled or demolished. And the same goes for buildings from the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. In other words, regardless of style, our buildings are getting progressively worse. Designed obsolescence in a toaster oven is upsetting and wasteful, but designed obsolescence in buildings is indefensible.

If built, the proposed Clemson Architecture Center will suffer the same fate of so many mid-century modern buildings and for the exact same reasons — a too-wide footprint, a flat roof, and a glazed curtain-wall system.

While some believe these are tradition-bucking features, I ask, "To what end?" We already know what will happen to buildings that are designed this way: the curtain wall system (especially without the use of water-shedding moldings) and flat roof (especially when planted with a garden) will allow water to infiltrate the building, and the wide footprint means the building will be unable to function without mechanical ventilation 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. As water infiltrates the wall system, dampness will set in and mold will start to grow, and the ceaseless mechanical system will spread mold until the infestation is beyond control, the building's inhabitants begin feeling sick, and the building is deemed uninhabitable and slated for major overhaul or demolition.

The challenge for my generation is not to produce "contemporary" architecture but to produce holistically sustainable architecture. While Baby Boomers continue their experiments in techno-green band-aids, designers from my generation are looking beyond Le Corbusier and his "free façade" to find, reconsider, and adapt those building technologies, which have proven records of sustainability. We are unafraid to employ past solutions as we see fit — not merely reference them abstractly. And our egos aren't hurt when we find that the best solution is simply a pitched roof or board-and-batten shutters.

When the Lee Brothers adapt an old recipe for a new cookbook, when Shepard Fairey imitates old graphics to make new images, when Quentin Baxter improvises within a standard, when Jill Hooper works with fresh paints made from centuries-old recipes, they are exemplifying our generation's return to an open-mindedness about tradition. And their achievements are lauded. Just as Charleston has a rich and enviable traditional cuisine, so too does it have a rich and enviable traditional architecture. Yet, in architecture and preservation communities, designing new architecture with a mind open to the whole tradition of our building culture is scorned as nostalgic rather than, as in the other arts, celebrated as the creative progression within a living tradition.

In 1951, Philip Johnson boasted that traditional design was no longer being taught in the academies. Today, even though tradition is being revived across the spectrum of cultural activities, the majority of architecture programs still maintain anti-traditional curriculums. Although the scales are slowly tipping, the vast majority of university architecture programs still refrain from teaching a traditional architectural curriculum. Clemson is one of these anti-traditional schools. While they offer courses in parasitical architecture, they offer none in contemporary traditional or classical design. This anti-traditional philosophy amounts to teaching music without teaching the scales.

The proposed Clemson Architecture Center represents an outdated design philosophy. Without a major shift in approach, we should not expect Clemson University to provide our city with the kind of forward-thinking, holistically sustainable buildings that have given Charleston her charm and allowed her to age so gracefully.

Jenny Bevan is partner at Bevan & Liberatos. She has a bachelor's degree in modernist architecture from the University of Virginia and a master's in contemporary classical architecture from the University of Notre Dame. She lives and works on the peninsula and participates in contemporary traditional design projects around the world, most recently in Panama and China.

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