Charleston's Board of Architectural Review voted 4-2 Wednesday to allow what may be the most strikingly contemporary building ever placed before it.

Architect Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture said the board's approval of the proposed Clemson Architecture Center design may reverberate beyond its site at George and Meeting streets.

"What's exciting to me is it's a moment in this city. It's a pivot point," he said. "It just elevates the discussion of architecture, and that's what we're trying to do."

The decision didn't come easy, as three of Charleston's preservation groups and two of its most influential neighborhoods joined with a majority of speakers asking that the concrete, aluminum and glass design be given the thumbs down.

Bob Demarco, chair of the city's Board of Architectural Review and an Ansonborough resident, also made a passionate plea against it.

He said its perforated and curving concrete walls reminded him of a "perpetual smile" and a "perpetual scowl," and said it doesn't give a nod to any other building in the historic city. Noting the neighbors' opposition, he asked, "Do we have a right to cram this down their throats?"

The building, to be named the Spaulding Paolozzi Center, will be three stories and segmented into three vertical sections as seen from Meeting Street. But its most visible features will be four-inch thick aluminum screen along Meeting and curving white concrete walls with a series of holes along George Street and the opposite facade.

Cloepfil said the design attempts to make the building as transparent as possible while also blocking the sun's glare and heat gain. He noted its appearance will change with different light, different times of the day and different times of the year.

Some, including Demarco, questioned if the building would be literally for the birds, who might be tempted to nest in the wall's holes.

Cloepfil said those openings have been enlarged and now have a 45-degree slant so birds cannot roost there and rain can more easily wash away dirt that may collect.

Out of character?

But Wednesday's debate revolved less around the details and how the building could be tweaked or improved than simply whether it was suitable for its site.

Randy Pelzer of the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association read the city's zoning ordinance that says the BAR should prevent buildings "not in harmony with the prevailing character of Charleston, or which are obviously incongruous with this character."

"Every single element of this project reflects something other than Charleston," he said. "This is a building that is simply Clemson coming to town saying, 'We do modern architecture. Look at us.' But it is not Charleston."

But Fletcher Derrick, who lives in Charleston and is an emeritus member of Clemson's board, said, "Obviously, there are some differences of opinion. The first time I looked at this, believe it or not, I saw three Charleston-style single houses."

Charleston resident Alice Tellis Critikos said when she first saw the rendering, "the best thing I saw ... was three trees. You should have put 25 trees in front of the building. It might have looked better."

Of the 20 people who spoke, three of every four opposed it.

Andy Clark, current president of the Charleston chapter of the American Institute of Architects noted the surrounding buildings were built in different centuries and in different architectural styles and said the Clemson building "will continue that tradition... Charleston deserves a design of this caliber."

Charleston City Architect and Preservation Officer Dennis Dowd recommended approval but urged the board not to approve the site design, which he said needed more detail as far as its landscaping and sitting areas. He also made several other specific recommendations, such as losing the proposed fig vine along the George Street facade, that the board agreed to require.

Demarco was joined by member Bob Faust in voting no, while members Jay White, Erika Harrison, Bill Wallace and Phyllis Ewing voted for it.

Work could begin soon

While the board still must grant final approval, the remaining issues are relatively minor, such as its signs, lighting, color and the quality of the contractor's sample panels - issues unlikely to change the overall appearance much.

And now that it has preliminary approval, things could start happening quickly.

The demolition of the one-story brick building currently on the site could begin later this year, and Choate also is expected to build larger and more detailed sample sections of the building's exterior for the city to critique.

What remains to be seen is whether its approval will lead to other architects and developers proposing more contemporary designs for a city whose recent architecture has mostly played it safe.

Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, said he doesn't think this means that similar buildings will sprout up in other parts of town.

White said he appreciated all the comments for and against the building, adding "this level of interest in a building like this means people care about what's being built in this city, and I think that's appropriate no matter what the board decides tonight."

"No, we've never seen anything like this before," he added, "and to me, that's a wonderful thing."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.