The proposed new Spaulding Paolozzi Center is good for Clemson University. In the spirit of trying new things, it should be built. But the proposed center is not a good fit for its Ansonborough location.
Out of its obligation to protect and enhance our National Historic Landmark District, the Board of Architectural Review should deny Clemson’s application to build it at the corner of Meeting and George streets.
The proposed site is ripe for appropriate redevelopment. The existing building is one of those ho-hum one-story commercial structures built on Meeting Street in the mid-20th century out of concrete blocks faced with bricks from the historic houses that were demolished to make room for them.
This architectural mistake should be corrected, but the Spaulding Paolozzi Center isn’t the fix.
An appropriate new building for this site would articulately speak Charleston’s well-established architectural vocabulary of mass, form, scale and materials. This is a city of evolving architectural styles where we can “read” streetscapes and place buildings in their time by looking closely at the selection of materials and the execution of details.
Some of Charleston’s most interesting mid-20th century buildings are commercial structures along King Street designed by Augustus Constantine; buildings that used brick and marble and metal in new ways while respecting the massing, scale and form of neighboring structures.
This centuries-old tradition of architectural evolution should continue, but it should continue in subtle ways, particularly in highly visible historic locations.
What we build in the context of our world-renowned landmark district should not, however, be a radical architectural mutation.
The Spaulding Paolozzi Center, as proposed, invents a whole new language and shouts: “Look what we can design with computers!”
The corner of Meeting and George streets should not be treated like a petri dish for architectural experimentation.
Clemson’s building should, instead, be built in a part of the city that is bereft of an existing architectural vocabulary. It would be appropriate as an architectural exercise to build it along the Morrison Drive corridor — historically known as Cool Blow Village — where it would be in context with other new Charleston landmarks such as One Cool Blow and the Ravenel Bridge.
At an upper peninsula site, the Center would be an exciting and interesting new building to visit, attracting attention to a part of the city where architectural experimentation should be encouraged, and where Clemson can boldly proclaim its unique vision for the future of architecture and design in Charleston (outside of our historic districts).
And looking at the bottom line, the Upper Peninsula is where land is cheaper, sites are bigger with room to grow, and the possibilities for the future development of student housing with other academic institutions are most promising.
Charleston’s experiments with more adventurous modern buildings in the 20th century have not been enduring successes.
Buildings such as the now-demolished county library on King Street, the existing College Lodge and T-shaped concrete bank on Calhoun Street, and the Federal Building on Meeting Street were all constructed in places where, at the time, they were not subject to design review by the Board of Architectural Review.
Whether those buildings should be (or should have been) preserved is part of an ongoing debate that Clemson’s architecture and preservation programs should be engaged in with us.
But that debate should not take place in a building that invites controversy as mere academic exercise just because the site happens to be convenient.
There is plenty of room in Charleston for the Spaulding Paolozzi Center. But the corner of Meeting and George streets is not the place to attempt to prove a point about modernism.
Ansonborough is a settled and stable historic neighborhood that does not need or want to be architecturally “challenged.”
The Board of Architectural Review must fulfill its obligation and cut this experiment short, and our friends and colleagues at Clemson should find an alternative site for their much needed new facility.
Evan Thomspon is executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston.
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