Architects for Clemson center make their case

This rendering shows the proposed Clemson Architecture Center, including its curved, perforated concrete walls along George Street (right).

Charleston seems poised to get its first building of the digital age.

A year after Clemson University got initial approval for a strikingly modern architecture center at George and Meeting streets, the architect is returning with a more refined plan.

The most striking detail?

The northern and southern facades featuring curved concrete walls with varied perforations.

This isn’t a random swiss cheese job: Each hole will be uniquely tailored based on a high-tech study of the way sunlight will interact with the building and those inside it.

Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture has spent the past year refining his design for the Spaulding Paolozzi Center, a new home for Clemson and the College of Charleston architecture and preservation programs.

Cleopfil’s initial plan, developed with help from Charleston architect E.E. Fava, squeaked through the city’s Board of Architectural Review last fall, and the latest version is expected to go before the board again Oct. 23.

The new plan opens up the ground-level facade along Meeting Street and provides more detail on how the first-floor George Street facade would be softened with a metal trellis and vines.

Cloepfil’s design goals here are many. He says the building should: respect the city’s rhythm and character; celebrate the city’s garden tradition by blending indoor and outdoor spaces; reflect the city’s craft and details; and set an innovative example for the students who will inhabit it.

The final goal deals with celebrating the city’s light, and that’s where the unique concrete walls come in.

ARUP engineers of New York, a firm that first made a name for itself by helping with the Sydney Opera House, did a light study showing how the opening in the curved walls should vary to maximize natural light inside while blocking direct sunlight and providing the optimal transparency.

Just as Frank Gehry’s architecture wouldn’t be possible without parametric software, these holes will be computer generated, too.

To understand the complexity, there’s a foam mock-up just north of Clemson’s current building at George and Meeting streets that gives one a sense of the proposed design.

A close inspection shows the holes not only vary from each other on the facade, but they change shape as they pass through the five or so inches of wall.

Looking at the mock-up from the south shows it’s rather opaque, but there’s a much more transparent view looking from the north — especially from the piazza of the nearby house.

Cloepfil says the data shows how the sunlight striking the building varies during the day, and during the year, and the resulting design is best for handling the worst-case scenario during all that time.

There are sure to be doubters, including fans of the city’s long-standing neoclassical tradition. Charlotte architect Jack Johnson, a Clemson graduate, thinks his alma mater is making a mistake. “People like to be comfortable with what they see next door,” he says.

Even some who will occupy the building wonder whether its southern facade will offer any view of the city, or whether the glass walls behind these metal and concrete screens can ever be cleaned.

There are some remaining design challenges, such as clarifying the metal and design for the screens along Meeting Street and the rear facade.

But Cloepfil says reaction to the latest design has been “incredibly positive,” as people see more detail and become more familiar with the idea.

Clemson Architecture Center Director Ray Huff says the school is committed to a transparent process, and that’s surely paying dividends, too.

And while many might not find it suits their taste, Cloepfil isn’t suggesting any compromise with aesthetics just for the sake of the new.

“You want people to cherish the building, and when it’s new, it takes time,” Cloepfil says. “I wanted to make a beautiful building because it’s a beautiful city.”



Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.

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