CLEMSON — A building that teaches.
That’s the goal as Clemson University and its architects begin designing a new architecture center at George and Meeting streets in downtown Charleston.
It also was the same goal as the university’s College of Arts, Architecture and Humanities built yet another addition to Lee Hall on its home campus among the Upstate’s rolling hills.
No one is saying the $31.6 million Lee Center expansion is what historic Charleston’s new center is going to look like, but a look at Lee lets one see the school’s architectural values at work.
For an architectural school, a new home not only should teach, but teach what to do rather than what not to do.
The Lee expansion, known as “Lee 3” around the school, is arguably Clemson’s most interesting and innovative buildings, and it’s sort of a shame that its remote site on the campus’ southern end is so off the beaten path. It would be easy to visit the school and never see it.
But the location was the only logical choice, because Clemson’s architectural studios, classrooms and offices began in a 1950s complex designed by former dean Harlan McClure and gradually added new space over the decades as enrollment increased and disciplines like city planning, real estate development and construction science and management moved in.
Those spaces were spruced up as part of the project, and McClure’s well-preserved courtyard complex is one of South Carolina’s first mid-century modernist works on the National Register of Historic Places.
Lee 3’s lead architect, Thomas Phifer and Partners of New York, is a Clemson grad who worked for architect Richard Meier for several years, and one can see hints of Meier’s beloved crisp, white modernism.
But Meier isn’t the only architect whose inspiration was channeled here: The interior’s dominant feature is a series of columns that branch out around large circular skylights — a somewhat subtle homage to what Frank Lloyd Wright did in his classic Johnson Wax office building.
The expansion reflects Clemson’s long-standing commitment toward minimizing energy by creating lighting, heating and cooling systems that use less electricity, by finding local building materials and by conserving water.
The concrete floors are heated and cooled by geothermal wells, while a series of windows at the building’s base and its ceiling (about 30 feet off the floor) provide a natural, cooling ventilation during the spring and fall.
A tour Saturday afternoon, a typical hot Upstate day, found the inside quite bright and comfortable, though there was no sign of any air handling or artificial light.
The lack of interior walls inside Lee 3 also emphasizes Clemson’s desire to have its architecture, art, planning and construction students see each others work as much as possible, and it also echoes the openness of McClure’s original design, though on a much grander scale.
But the building also emphasizes Clemson’s love of the new — a love that will make its project in Charleston so controversial (or interesting, depending on your perspective).
Bob Hogan, Clemson’s associate chair of the School of Architecture, puts it this way:
“We wanted it to fit with Lee 1 and Lee 2, but we don’t want to repeat what we’ve done,” he says.
“We want to fit into the fabric, but at the same time, we want each of the pieces of architecture to speak of their own time. That’s the hard part. Doing the same thing in Charleston is really hard because it’s got such a historic flavor.”
Appreciating Lee 3 cannot really be done unless one goes to the upper floor of part of Lee 2 and looks down on the grassy roof and the periscope-like skylight cones designed to let in light, not heat.
John Jacques, a former dean who worked with Greenville architect McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture as the local designers, clearly enjoys seeing the green roof blend in with the distant treeline of Pickens and Oconee counties.
“Our garden roof is the first of all the rolling hills that go off the south,” he says.
Clemson’s new architectural center in Charleston certainly will be different, but hopefully, in its own way, it will be every bit as good.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
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