Architecture center design sure to stir the pot

This rendering shows the modern design proposed for the Spaulding Paolozzi Center (as seen from Meeting and George streets) that would house Clemson’s architecture program.

The design for Clemson University’s new architecture center at George and Meeting streets is guaranteed to turn heads.

Whether it gets built will depend on how many stomachs it turns as well.

Give Clemson credit: Its proposed Spaulding Paolozzi Center, done by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture and Charleston architect E.E. Fava, could be a thoughtful and intriguing addition to a great city whose recent architecture often has played it safe.

That’s certainly not going on here.

“We were hired to do the most important piece of contemporary architecture — or architecture of our time — that we can do in this city,” Cloepfil says.

The design for the 30,000-square-foot center at the northeast corner of George and Meeting streets includes three rectangular masses, not unlike grand three-story single houses in their approximate size.

That might be the only familiar thing.

The design also features a recessed central entry court on Meeting Street, a highly transparent facade of glass and screens, and perforated, curved walls along George Street and the northern facade.

Cleopfil says he studied the city’s texture, scale and details —its gardens and walls, its light and its tradition of craft —all to create a work of architecture “excruciatingly specific” to its site.

Also to its credit, Clemson has done much to address neighborhood concerns that helped derail its earlier architecture center plan — one done several years ago by architects Kennedy & Violich of Boston.

This new corner site is closer to Charleston’s busy Meeting Street, farther away from Ansonborough’s homes. The school has no plans for any parking on the site, and Cloepfil notes that he wants “as much garden as we can get in the design,” including a green roof and fig vines along the George Street base.

“The real goal is for people to think the building is beautiful when it’s built,” he says. “What I want it to do is initiate a new conversation about the prospect of new architecture.”

That conversation begins this week, as the city’s Board of Architectural Review considers the plans Wednesday.

It could get rather loud.

Many will argue it doesn’t fit in; others will argue with equal passion that it does. Beauty, even whether a building is appropriate for its context, are subjective notions.

The city’s zoning law says the board should consider “the character and appropriateness of design, (the) scale of buildings, arrangement, texture, materials and color ... and the relation of such elements to similar features of structures in the immediate surroundings.”

It says the board should block designs “not in harmony with the prevailing character of Charleston, or which are obviously incongruous with this character.”

Cloepfil, Fava and others will say this building passes that test, even if it doesn’t resemble much of anything else that’s ever been built before in the oldest part of the city.

But there is another tradition in Charleston architecture to consider — a tradition beyond Andrea Palladio, beyond symmetry, beyond brick and wood and columns and pediments and porticoes.

It’s the tradition of allowing owners and their architects to build in the style of their choice.

Some here object to architect David M. Schwarz’ highly neoclassical design for the Gaillard Auditorium makeover just a block away from the Clemson site. Too bad: It’s what the client wanted, and after a lot of scrutiny and some tweaks, it’s what is being built.

Residents and review boards can weigh in on quality and details and other specifics, but there is no architectural pattern book to follow here.

This 300-plus-year-old city is too diverse for that.

Does Charleston deserve this building? I’m not sure. It’s off to an interesting start, and I’m eager to see more details, particularly how it would look up close, how it would function and what neighbors think (those who have to look at it every day should have outsized influence, if only to protect the city’s fragile sense of livability).

In any case, it shouldn’t be rejected because the city isn’t ready for something new.

Architect Cameron Mactavish of Philadelphia will give a lecture at 7 p.m. Thursday on the preservation and restoration of three mid-Atlantic landmarks by architects Walter Price, Frank Furness and Henry Powell Hopkins. Held in Room 309 of the College of Charleston’s Simons Center, it’s free and open to the public.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.