Charleston’s aversion to change has spawned some mediocre architecture over the years. Designers anticipate facing obstacle after obstacle while seeking permission to build in historic parts of the city. It’s understandable that some decide to play it safe and avoid the sting — and expense — of rejection.
And then there is the Clemson Architecture School building being proposed for the corner of George and Meeting streets. In its early stages of design, it’s anything but safe.
The materials are bold — lots of glass and metal. One Board of Architectural Review member said the southern facade looks like two huge lips. The Preservation Society of Charleston didn’t like it for this site. And the Ansonborough neighborhood association voted to oppose the building.
But the BAR overwhelmingly approved plans by architect E.E. Fava — specifically the building’s proposed height, scale and mass. And Historic Charleston Foundation gave it a nod, too.
It seems that Charleston is in for a tussle — a good sign that residents, city staff, the BAR and preservationists want only the best for their city.
It won’t be the first for Clemson. Five years ago itwanted to erect a building on George Street for its Charleston architecture and preservation programs.
The public opposed it, and the school withdrew its plans. The site is now used for surface parking.
The tussle over the latest plan, on a site near the first one, can’t begin in earnest until the architect fine-tunes his design. Indeed, he was advised by the BAR, city staff and preservationists that a lot of work needed to be done before he returns for further consideration in 2013.
Perhaps some who object to the plans would object to anything without a pitched roof and steps curving up to an imposing front door.
That narrow thinking is precisely what did not happen as Charleston was built, and its resulting diverse architecture is one of its greatest assets.
But contemporary design for the sake of being contemporary isn’t the answer either. Even a compelling design can be completely wrong for a particular location.
As the powers that be move forward in their consideration of the George/Meeting Street site, they should be open to a building that pushes the design envelope. But they should insist on one that works for that site, whatever the style.
The architect has the formidable challenge of persuading the public that the design of the George Street facade, and the materials used for it, are indeed in context in the high-profile spot.
The standard has already been set for architectural diversity in that area. The building would share the corner with a modern bank building, the 1870 Washington Light Infantry building and the College of Charleston’s athletic building.
Nearby are the 1796 Adam-style Middleton-Pinckney house (formerly the city waterworks building, and now the office of Spoleto Festival USA), the College of Charleston’s new basketball arena and Ansonborough’s stately homes.
Charleston is getting another chance on this site, where now sits a one-story dialysis center that might be more at home in the suburbs.
It is a prominent corner on one of Charleston’s main streets, with lots of College of Charleston foot traffic.
It deserves an excellent building.
Let the debate begin.