When Clemson University unveiled its designs for the Spaulding Paolozzi Center, a "modernist" building meant to house the school's satellite architecture and design division, strong reactions followed. People either loved the building (or at least the idea of the building), or they hated it.

The lovers argued that architect Brad Cloepfil's plans were fresh and light and new and smart, and that the new building would help mix up the landscape, adding aesthetic vitality to the city. The haters insisted that it was ugly and inappropriate, that it didn't fit within the city's prevailing architectural style.

The controversy, still unsettled, has drawn attention to one of those timeless, fundamental urban questions: whether and how new, modernist buildings should be integrated into a landscape characterized by protected historic structures or dominated by a particular historic style.

This is a question as much about aesthetics - the art of architecture - as it is about civic life, and to answer it well requires the public to differentiate between private and civic design and to employ the appropriate architectural language, according to local architects and urban design experts.

Civic vs. private

Architecture comes in many forms but might be roughly divided into two primary categories: private and civic.

Private architecture refers to houses, shops, office blocks, hotels and other proprietary buildings. It comprises the majority of structures in a community and helps define its general character.

Civic architecture is meant for public spaces and includes schools, libraries, arenas, concert halls, courthouses and municipal buildings. These structures tend to be fewer in number in any given community, but pronounced. These are the landmarks, the buildings that can make a statement.

Buildings in both categories define the urban landscape and determine whether that landscape is ugly or beautiful, environmentally friendly and so on, but the aesthetic and economic rules that guide their construction, and the rights of citizens in determining those rules, differ in significant ways.

"Charleston's biggest architectural problem is not high-style construction, it's mediocre developer-driven buildings," said Jacob Lindsey, the new director of Charleston's Civic Design Division.

There is an important difference between common "background buildings," like apartments and shops, and civic buildings, Lindsey said.

"We want our civic buildings to be great works of architecture," he said. "That's not to say background buildings don't need to be good, but we need a separate framework for assessing civic and background buildings."

Few rules

Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston, noted that classic architecture comes with clear sets of rules, which makes it easier for designers. It doesn't require immense creative talent to make something that's been made many times before.

"But modernist architecture has few solid rules," Huff said. "So much more depends on the skill and competence of the architect."

Indeed, the modern notion of the star architect - Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, I.M. Pei, Zaha Hadid, Mies Van Der Rohe, to name a few - is a consequence of significant advances in technology that enabled architects to push the limits of design. When doing so, it's difficult to follow the guidelines of classical style.

"Few have successfully integrated new architectural processes and the old rules," Huff said. Yet it's the old rules that many continue to uphold, even when a new, perhaps radical, building project is proposed.

Integrating old and new in a single urban landscape, especially a landscape full of historic buildings or a coherent visual style, is "one of the toughest issues in all architecture," according to Nicola Leonardi, editor and co-publisher of The Plan, a high-end architecture magazine and website operated from Bologna, Italy.

Modernist architecture is distinctive by definition. So "it's impossible to achieve unanimous agreement with one solution," Leonardi said. "You don't really get right and wrong with this kind of situation."

Variety is an important aesthetic and practical goal, he said. Designing new buildings that blend in with older structures surely is possible, "but from an intellectual point of view, that's not good. It's better to insert something new."

Sometimes it just takes an extra degree of inspiration or courage to achieve something great, Leonardi said.

"Good architecture comes from good clients and good commitments. One thing that's important is to have a very clear idea about what you want to have as a result. Sometimes it's more than the architecture, it's the people who are (sponsoring the project)."

Huff pointed out that Charleston's downtown landscape is changing significantly because of population growth, economic development, tourism and more. "We have to accommodate this growth," even if there aren't many large parcels of land left to build on, he said.

Mostly, new buildings will go up in already densely populated areas, what's called infill. The community needs a coherent strategy that encourages good real estate development while safeguarding residents from displacement and protecting the city's character.

A balance must be struck between smart urban planning and normal market forces, he said. But how do you ensure that new development will result in high-quality buildings?

"A good way is to not allow bad architecture and a bad way is to encourage mediocre architecture," Huff said. To do that, you bring a group of knowledgeable people together who can assess a proposed project and reach a decision. "You cannot legislate taste," Huff said. "At the end of the day, it always comes down to the competence of an individual piece of work."

Creating dialogue

Scott Parker, co-founder of the Charleston-based DesignWorks, an urban design and planning firm, said what makes the city unique is its walkability, the result of street and building design that encourages lots of interaction. "Did architects think about these things when designing?" he asked. "Probably."

So Parker's rule of thumb for Charleston is simple: "Every space should work for pedestrians." Every new building should enhance the walker's experience; it should be engaging, open, inviting.

"You have to get that basic rule right," he said. "A lot of modern buildings don't."

Even a building someone deems aesthetically disagreeable might nevertheless be considered successful insofar as it engages the passerby and makes him think about its relationship to its surroundings, Parker said.

"New architecture should reflect the uniqueness of place," he said.

One example of the new confronting the old that might be particularly relevant for Charleston is architect Steven Holl's Seona Reid Building, part of the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland.

The Reid Building sits directly across the street from the famous 1909 Mackintosh building. It is an example of careful contrast that nevertheless adopts the same basic design motif as its predecessor: the play of light through space.

It is similar, too, in its rectangular bulk, yet the new structure is built with modern materials and employs angles even as it mirrors the flat facade of the Mackintosh building. Its exterior is purposefully mute, as if to pay respects to its older sibling. Whereas the Mackintosh has thin bones and a thick skin, the Reid Building is the opposite.

The point, said Leonardi, is that smart design not only succeeds on its own, it celebrates its setting, too.

"You can create very contemporary buildings that nevertheless refer to the old, either contextually or aesthetically," Leonardi said. This creates a dialogue between buildings and improves the quality of the city as a whole.

'Risky business'

Charleston is considered one of America's most European cities, with narrow streets, connected buildings and a relatively centralized historical district. Yet it has no stand-out modernist buildings talked about in architecture circles.

"I really think there's a place for contemporary design in historic cities," said Winslow Hastie, chief preservation officer at Historic Charleston Foundation. "There has to be, but it has to be sensitive."

Hastie initially supported the Clemson project. He liked the proportions of the building, and he was intrigued by the planned use of unorthodox materials and a green roof. As the design was adjusted - the green roof was jettisoned and the metal screens expanded - he shifted to the opposition.

He said the first characteristic of a proposed new design that he notices is the height, scale and mass: "the box" in architectural shorthand. That has to be appropriate for the surroundings, Hastie said. After that, "the skin," or exterior, is important: the materials used, the arrangement of windows and doors on the elevations, the style.

Too often, he said, the physical characteristics of a building are dictated primarily by economics, not art and design.

"The way development works these days - all people care about is their immediate returns," Hastie said. "There is not a lot of pride in the craftsmanship and quality."

He raises a critical issue, one that points to a dilemma, according to Parker.

"Developers are people who build our communities," he said. "Real estate development is a very risky business. The more rules and requirements, the tighter the economics get." And the first thing to go is not the number of rentable or sellable units, not the parking or interior amenities. It's quality design.

For Parker, good economics and good design are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A lot depends on whether the rules set by cities, review boards and special interest groups are flexible. But one of the best ways to protect both the bottom line and high-concept design is to achieve density where appropriate within the existing urban context, he said.

Density does two main things, he said. "It allows for alternate modes of mobility (walking, biking, public transportation) and, in appropriate locations, density helps with the economics, enabling more resources to be directed toward quality architecture."

For Lindsey, it's inevitable, and desirable, to mix up the urban landscape, but to do so in a way that respects the city's architectural character, which is overwhelmingly defined by traditional, small-scale buildings.

"In Charleston, we've done an amazing job of preserving historical buildings, and no one is suggesting we change that," Lindsey said. "We're only talking about a few in-fill sites; we're not talking about a wholesale reconfiguration."

So there is room here for thoughtful, perhaps radical architecture.

"We should welcome new buildings that have style, no matter what they are," modernist, neoclassical, neocolonial, deconstructivist, vernacular, and so on. "We should discourage buildings with no architectural style."

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.