The architecture of the two new James E. Clyburn Research Center buildings is interesting, better than many of its neighbors.

But what really makes the center something to celebrate is the new plaza out front.

Now that the construction fences are gone, it feels as if the Medical University of South Carolina's campus has doubled in size.

Open space is critical to how people perceive institutions of higher ed. Think of the College of Charleston's Cistern Yard, The Citadel's parade ground, Clemson's Bowman Field or the horseshoe at the University of South Carolina, Dartmouth College's green and so on.

For decades, MUSC has had its own horseshoe, a live-oak-shaded square off Ashley Avenue that softens the line where a large, modern hospital district bumps against a smaller-scale historic neighborhood.

Now, the horseshoe has a friendly rival -- one that offers more sun, at least in the winter, when its approximately 30 elms lose their leaves. It also offers a series of paths, different places to congregate and new urban views.

The plaza's design finesses the 5-foot elevation difference between where Jonathan Lucas Street bends into Doughty Street and the entrances to the new Clyburn Center buildings.

A series of terraces with stone benches riff on the grade, while several gently sloped paths give those in wheelchairs ample options.

The terraces, grass, sweetgrass and eco-grid paving around the trees and seat walls also help capture rainwater runoff on site, a priority in a project designed to be recognized for being environmentally friendly.

The easternmost path from Jonathan Lucas to Bee Street looks like a pedestrian way, but it's designed to support firetrucks. There's even a plastic grid buried underneath the nearby grass to support the trucks and their outriggers.

Landscape architect and urban designer Bill Eubanks with the

Urban Edge Studios of SW+A says the biggest challenge was making everyone happy, from the many clients at MUSC to the architects Stevens & Wilkinson of Columbia and Goody Clancy of Boston, who also influenced the design.

"There were so many cooks in the stew," he says. "Just getting consensus was the biggest challenge … but every one of those people who stuck their thumb in there made it better."

The proportional relationship between the plaza's expanse and the height of the surrounding buildings wasn't necessarily planned, but it certainly feels right. And it's proven a popular hang-out place from day one.

Eubanks notes that the project also included removing a traffic island at President and Doughty streets to make it more urban and to pull the building closer to the street.

The plaza isn't nice because the school threw a lot of money at it: The light bollards, brick-lined concrete paths, teak benches, trash cans and other features are basic. Actually, they're prototypes from MUSC's relatively recent master plan and will be replicated gradually elsewhere on campus.

And the plaza, which technically doesn't have a name yet, is still a work in progress.

Soon, new plants will screen several above-ground metal utility boxes, and the bright light bulbs will gradually be replaced with dimmer ones.

Most significantly, MUSC plans a new medicinal garden in the northeastern corner, a garden that will contain several dozen medicinal plants identified by Francis Peyre Porcher.

An MUSC graduate, Porcher wrote a book on Southern herbal cures in 1863 at the behest of the surgeon general of the Confederate States of America. At the time, Union blockades were hampering the flow of medicines as well as other goods.

Pretty cool that this medicinal garden will grow just outside the Clyburn Center's new drug-discovery building.

And to think, this plaza once was little more than a walled-off lot where hundreds parked their cars.

MUSC's new plaza or courtyard isn't exactly paradise, but it still seems the opposite of that "Big Yellow Taxi" lyric.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771