In a city that frowned on the idea of tearing down a 50-year-old gas station, it’s no surprise that debate over a proposed ultra-modern building at a prominent downtown location is making waves.
In the case of the gas station at the corner of Meeting and Chalmers streets, it was purchased by the Historic Charleston Foundation in the 1980s and converted to the Frances R. Edmunds Center for Historic Preservation.
In the case of the Clemson Architecture Center planned for the corner of George and Meeting streets, its fate is uncertain.
One thing is certain: Its approval or rejection by the Board of Architectural Review will engender passionate responses.
Some different perspectives are illustrated in today’s letters to the editor and in a column by Preservation Society of Charleston executive director Evan Thompson.
The Historic Charleston Foundation has offered support for the design. The neighborhood association in Ansonborough, where the building is located, opposes it.
Some would defer to the experts — architects who have the training and experience to predict how well a building will stand the test of time.
But few of the people who will be walking, driving and living nearby are so exquisitely trained. And they will comprise the vast majority of those who will appreciate the building. Or not.
Its architects, for example, look at the building and see a similarity to the “rhythm and proportion” of Charleston’s architecture. And on the north and south sides, its architects have designed shade walls pierced to let in indirect light but keep out direct light. They contend that this feature is reminiscent of the many ways traditional Charleston architecture incorporates shading and shuttering.
These Charleston “connections” are likely to be lost, at least to many lay observers, in a glass, concrete and metal building that is otherwise much different from surrounding structures.
Designing and approving a building for such an important spot — and such an important function — is a difficult task. Incorporating modern architecture in such a traditional place is a challenge for the designers who must honor the building’s surroundings and for the public who must be open to something new and different.
It is important that both sides make that effort.
The BAR has previously approved the scale of the Clemson center, and will today consider its design. If context matters, this building will require significant revisions, particularly along George Street, to respect the streetscape and the adjacent residential neighborhood.
Residents shouldn’t be reluctant to speak up. Charleston will be living with whatever Clemson builds for a long time to come.