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Charleston, SC approves modernistic building despite citizen opposition

Architect's rendering of the proposed Charleston Architecture Center
Architect's rendering of the proposed Charleston Architecture Center
Allied Works Architecture

Architectural Critique

Clemson University’s Charleston Architecture Center is already being called “the eyesore building” by Charleston residents, in mocking reference to the squinting eye motifs on the planned structure’s longest façade. The Minimalist design marks a radical change from Charleston’s architectural traditions, stretching back to 1674. It also makes a mockery of the basic principles of urban design in historic cities. If public hearings are an indicator, it is bitterly opposed by the majority of Charleston’s citizens.

There continues to be virtually no job prospects for architecture graduates in the Lower Southeast, but Clemson University in Upstate South Carolina is marching ahead with its plans to construct a modernistic Cube for the branch of its College of Architecture in historic Charleston. The school is currently housed in the restored "Old Marine Hospital" that was constructed in 1834 and designed by the famous architect, Robert Mills.

Although tourism and property values continue to thrive on the peninsula, where the original city of Charleston was founded over three centuries ago, the economy of the Charleston Metropolitan Area has languished since the United States Navy began shrinking its North Charleston Naval Yard. Once the richest city in the United States, Charleston has been economically outpaced by Jacksonville, FL and Savannah, GA; both of which have superior port facilities. Corporate offices have gravitated to “new” cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Greenville. There are no high-rise office buildings in Charleston.

The approved design of the building consists of three, merged, white cubes that are accessed from Meeting Street. The long George Street façade is composed of window walls, partially concealed by an aluminum screen that is punctuated by two eye-shaped openings. The facades make extensive use of reflective glass that the architects claim will make the building almost invisible. That will be especially true during solar eclipses, because at other times the reflected sun will make itself known. Many of Charleston’s most famous architectural monuments are located on Meeting Street.

On June 25, 2012, Charleston’s Board of Architectural Review voted 4-2 to approve the controversial design of the proposed building despite passionate pleas against the design from the commission’s chairman, Bob Demarco. Also, a broad range of civic groups and at least 3/4ths of the citizens attending. spoke out in protest against the intrusive design.

In his article on the controversial hearing, Robert Behre of the Charleston News-Courier quoted Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, the firm that designed the building. Cleopfil stated, “The Board’s approval of Clemson’s Architecture Center design may reverberate beyond its site at George and Meeting Streets. What’s exciting to me is it’s a moment in this city. It’s a pivot point. It just elevates the discussion of architecture, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Andy Clark, president of the Charleston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects also spoke in favor of the design. He stated that buildings in that neighborhood were constructed in different centuries and in different architectural styles. He added, “The Clemson building will continue that tradition.”

Urban Design 101 seems not to have been a consideration of the Charleston Architectural Review Board. However, the analysis of this building will come later in the article. First, though, I should let you in on a dirty little secret. My French Huguenot ancestors, the Morels and De Veaux’s, were some of the earliest residents of Charleston. They lived there for two generations before becoming some of the earliest residents of Savannah, GA. Furthermore, I was the director of the team that prepared Charleston’s first comprehensive plan.

Asheville, NC almost made the same mistake

Something is very odd about this news story. The Charleston municipal government’s chief historic preservation officer spoke in favor of the design, even though it violated every standard in the city’s historic preservation ordinance and also, the historic preservation standards of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Left unsaid in local coverage is the obvious. The institutions and persons, who developed Charleston into a major tourist attraction, have been slam-dunked by people behind the scenes, with a very different agenda for the city’s future. The powers-behind-the-scenes approved this structure, long before it was approved by the commission.

A metropolitan city’s downtown (aka Central Business District) is typically not the driving economic force for a region, but rather an indicator of the region’s relative economic health. Charleston and Savannah are unique in that their historical downtowns have become international attractions for tourism and therefore, major regional economic bases within themselves. A modern CBD would necessarily be built elsewhere, unless one wanted to destroy this economic base.

Review of supportive comments at the public hearing and in earlier public hearings revealed a prevailing theme. Supporters believe that construction of a modern building in one of the most esteemed historic cities in North America would stimulate Charleston’s economic and cultural vitality. They have somehow concluded that old buildings equate to sluggish economies. Asheville, North Carolina almost made the same mistake three decades ago.

Asheville had been generally stagnant since the city went bankrupt in 1926. Prior to then, it was competing against Atlanta for regional corporate headquarters. The city had started work on a subway system when it went bankrupt! In 1977, most of Downtown Asheville’s buildings dated from 1890 – 1926. Asheville’s business leaders decided that if they demolished the downtown’s historic buildings and replaced them with a single regional mall and multilevel parking decks, Asheville would become a major league player again.

Still a wet-behind-the-ears architect-planner, I was hired away from the firm that was Charleston’s planning consultant to prepare the Downtown Asheville Revitalization Plan and direct its implementation. It seemed an opportunity too good to be true. That it was. I was actually intended to be a patsy, whose credentials in historic preservation would be a good screen for on-going behind-the-scenes political machinations involved with demolishing the historic structures and providing public financing for a private sector mall. So while I was drawing plans for those famous round plazas, pocket parks and Europeanesque urban villages, the Building Inspections Department was secretly preparing condemnation paperwork to have the same structures, forcibly demolished. The mall developer was essentially going to be given Downtown Asheville on a silver platter.

Well, we Creek Indians are not particularly known for being either patsies or stupid, plus the young adults in Asheville rose up in rebellion. I had the plans for the long forgotten subway access tunnels and used them to communicate with "Save Downtown Asheville," the organization formed to stop the mall.

Progressive citizens of Asheville challenged the Old Guard and beat them in elections. The Downtown Asheville that you see today (minus the big hole in front of City Hall) is the one I planned in the 1979 Downtown Asheville Revitalization Plan. Most residents of Asheville today, are not even aware of the disaster that almost befell the city.

The Secretary of Interior’s Standards

Local historic preservation commissions are supposed to generally follow a set of standards adopted by the U. S. Department of the Interior for National Historic Districts and National Landmarks. The standards require that all new buildings not emulate historical buildings, but be harmonious with them by using compatible colors, materials, building scale and fenestration. The proposed Architecture Center fails miserably in complying with any of these standards. It is an architecture school. That is what is most inexplicable about this scandal in Charleston.

Earthquake resistance: Façade openings in Charleston are narrower than in other historic cities along the Atlantic Seaboard because Charleston is epicenter for the most dangerous earthquake zone in the Eastern United States. This building design contains broad window walls that will shatter in an earthquake like the one that struck Charleston in 1886.

Environmental design: Virtually all buildings on Meeting and George Streets in Charleston have multiple, small fenestrations that are at a human scale. This human scale is what delights residents and visitors alike. Charleston’s and Savannah’s human scaled fenestrations have been emulated at numerous New Urbanism communities throughout the Eastern United States. The design of the Architecture Center presents a predominantly blank wall composed of mirror glass and aluminum screening. What were these people thinking?

Courtyards: An architectural tradition that transcends all periods of Charleston’s history is the creation of shaded interior courtyards. These courtyards function both as outdoor living spaces and transitional spaces that link the private and public environments. This design has none. Courtyards would be especially practical in an architecture school, where exhibits and construction demonstrations are commonplace.

Color: The rendering of the proposed building shows its façade to be composed of a white cementous material with wide expanses of reflective glass. Many mansions in Charleston’s Battery Neighborhood have clapboard façades painted white, but in the vicinity of the proposed building site, the majority of structures are earth tones. Most of Meeting Street’s large historic structures are finished in natural cementous stuccos, which are grayish-tan in color.

Balconies and entrances: Most of historic structures along Meeting Street display long balconies or verandas, which shield occupants from the hot South Carolina sun and function as outdoor living spaces. Entrances are often set back from the façade and protected by an overhang. This proposed building has none. The verandas of the current Charleston Architecture Center are favorite locations for students to socialize and have casual conversations with professors.

Façade Materials: Typical finish materials along Meeting Street are stucco and brick. The design of this building appears to have a façade composed of reinforced concrete, glass and an aluminum screen.

Façade Orientation: Most historic buildings on Meeting Street have horizontal façades. Many public buildings, especially churches and the Old City Hall have either steeples or cupolas that function as vertical punctuation points.

Roof Lines: Most historic buildings on Meeting Street have gable, gambrel or Mansard roofs. This building design has a flat roof. Several of its neighbors have flat roofs, but they also have parapets and cornices.

Roof Overhangs: Virtually all historic buildings in Charleston have roof overhangs. This design has none. In a reference to the Late-19th and Early 20th century brick store fronts, the rendering shows three miniature parapets on the George Street façades. Such pseudo-details are expressly forbidden by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

Landscaping: Meeting Street lost most of its street trees in the 20th century, but the neighborhood along George Street still has some. Wrapping both facades with trees would have gone a long way in making the building more compatible with its environs and also reducing electrical consumption by HVAC systems.

Charleston, South Carolina . . . this particular emperor is so buck naked, that you will never be able to put clothes on him. We know that you can do better. That is why Charleston is uniquely, Charleston.