During its planning, the Charleston County Library building on Marion Square educated the public about modern architecture. The public didn’t all like what it learned.
During its life as a library, from 1960 until 1998, the building educated people about literature, history, science and current events.
And its recent demolition has some instructive messages about preservation.
The pink marble, steel and glass building has been generally criticized as boxy and inconsistent with its environment, though occasionally praised as a refreshing addition to what was a blighted area.
But those who have lamented its demise have done so mostly because of nostalgia or principles of preservation. Few have stepped up to say they liked the way it looked.
Robert Behre wrote in The Post and Courier’s Friday story on the demolition that many consider it “the end of an era — or the end of an error.”
Hence the astute question being raised by some preservationists:
Before demolition, should buildings in the city be judged purely on aesthetics, or also on their social and cultural significance?
For example, the King Street library building was the first public building designed to serve an integrated populace.
The decision to tear down the library building was hard-fought, not because there was an overwhelming movement to save the building but because people feared what was being proposed to replace it: a large hotel.
But just across Marion Square, the 1965 Rivers federal office building — one considered unattractive by many and architecturally important by others — has been preserved and is being transformed into a hotel.
The Preservation Society of Charleston considers buildings from the mid-20th century worthy of saving. There aren’t many, and they represent a part of the area’s architectural history.
But it’s a bit like Charleston’s relationship with modern architecture today. Some openly reject it, wanting only traditional buildings that fit in. Others say mimicking the past cheapens historic buildings and leaves the city less interesting.
But even those who advocate for diversity in architecture can be conflicted when an actual modern design is proposed — like the one being planned for the corner of George and Meeting streets.
Evan Thompson, director of the Preservation Society, suggests the city’s demolition review needs more objective standards that take into account aesthetics, social and cultural history and how a site should be used.
That is a good suggestion worthy of investigation.
And if architects and developers sense an appreciation for non-traditional design, perhaps they will bring to the table more new design for consideration.
When the library was being built, one local advocate said, “Fixed ideas and tastes indicate a dead city, a city unfit in which to raise children.”
The News and Courier warned, “Drab, box-like buildings, whether private or public, dehumanize the occupants.”
In other words, design decisions are never going to be completely objective.
But some well-considered guidelines for demolition could make the process clearer.