RAY HUFF: Director of Clemson architecture center learns along with students

Ray Huff

Adam Parker // The Post and Courier

Ray Huff (far left) and David Pastre, professors of architecture at the Clemson Architecture Center of Charleston, supervise students in the design-build studio.

Architecture can seem to be a stuffy, impenetrable profession, concerned mostly with compass-drawn angles, blueprints and balsa wood models.

But really, good architecture is all about people -- that's what builders and designers often say. It's about making life better, providing services, enhancing culture, creating and beautifying the visual landscape. It's about collaboration and vision, creative thinking and problem solving and, at its best, art.

In South Carolina, this is the conception of architecture advanced by Clemson Architecture Center of Charleston and its director, Ray Huff.

The center got its start in 1989 so that Clemson could offer students sustained exposure to an urban setting.

Part of Clemson's School of Design and Building, the center is one of three city-based branches. The others are in Barcelona, Spain, and Genoa, Italy.

"The main idea is to provide our students with a vibrant urban experience that complements their academic experience on the main campus, which is quite rural in nature," said John Jacques, director of the Clemson Advancement Foundation, the school's fundraising arm, and former architecture professor and chair of the faculty.

Jacques, a longtime friend of Huff (the two attended Clemson together as students in the late

1960s and early 1970s), helped establish the center. He said Huff already had distinguished himself as a practicing architect when he was made director.

"He had received national attention by that time," Jacques said. "And because of that, and because of his longstanding, high regard within the community, the dean at the time (Jim Barker, now Clemson president) and I thought he would be a great choice."

After running the center for its first decade, Huff committed himself to private practice (though he continued to teach), handing the reins to Rob Miller. Miller presided over the center until last year, when he was recruited by the University of Arizona to become chairman of its architecture department.

When Clemson launched a national search for a new director, Huff threw his hat in the ring and was selected. A new Huff era began last fall.

Getting started

Huff was born in Orangeburg in 1948, grew up in Charleston and attended Burke High School.

"I decided that, because I could draw, architecture sounded pretty good," he said.

So he enrolled at Clemson University in the fall of 1966, a few months after Harvey Gantt, the Charleston native who desegregated the institution, left.

After a brief period in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he cultivated an interest in transcendental meditation and communal living, he returned to Clemson in 1972 and started Synergy Architects. He also began teaching. Six years later, he was in Charleston, close to family, developing a new practice at Cumberland and East Bay streets. His career was on a roll.

In 1997, Mario Gooden joined the practice, and the two partners plotted their future. They had good name recognition thanks to a number of awards they'd won, articles they'd published and audiences they'd addressed. But the pair had never been driven by market demands, so they tended "to be the odd men out," Huff said.

Their goals were to establish an international presence and to mesh architecture with culture, especially by pursuing public projects that affected society. They hosted competitions, then started winning them. That improved their standing, and they decided a few years ago to open an office in New York City, which Gooden runs.

Meeting needs

At the architecture center, David Pastre, who oversees the design-build studio, shows off the inventive bathroom experiments: a sink made from a Chinese wok, window levelers that open and close thanks to a pulley device rigged to the sliding door, cast concrete panels that hide hand-fashioned plumbing, reused materials that once served entirely different purposes.

All of this the students made.

Throughout the building on Franklin Street, which once housed the Jenkins Orphanage, furniture is crafted to solve particular design problems. A small library must double as a conference room, so one of the center's students designed mobile shelving and a mobile librarian desk that slides on casters to and from the wall.

There's a 2,000-square-foot workshop nearby on Simons Street, and Huff is starting to think about the day when the center can relocate to a larger, more comfortable building to be constructed on a George Street lot owned by Clemson.

The students, who range from undergraduate juniors to first-year graduate students, dedicate a semester to living in Charleston and working on a project from conception to completion. The studio has a mix of students who specialize in architecture, landscape architecture, design, construction and, thanks to a partnership with the College of Charleston, historic preservation.

The experience is "structured around the idea of bridging the gap between practice and academia," Huff explained.

Students, who pursue regular course work at the college, benefit from direct experience, working closely with people in the local design and architecture community and getting opportunities to test their ideas in the real world.

It's called "service learning," Pastre said.

Design, then build

The group dynamic in the studio is palpable.

"We stress collaborative learning here," Huff says, unnecessarily.

Huff and Pastre are the two full-time professors on hand each day, but seven lecturers -- professionals culled form the local community -- cycle through on a regular basis, offering lessons rooted in experience.

And the exposure to working professionals is what sets the center apart, Jacques said.

"But what they cherish most about having the chance to work with (Huff) is that he's treating them as fellow students," Jacques said. "He lets them know he's learning from them, too."

Joseph Martin, a 25-year-old graduate student, worked for a design-build firm in Indianapolis before enrolling at Clemson and joining the team at the center this semester.

"I haven't slept much, so it's going well," he said.

Part of a group of three working on one aspect of a park project, Martin said the term started with a flurry of ideas that were narrowed down to three broad concepts and then refined further.

Barrett Armstrong, 22, a student of landscape architecture, said the relaxed environment belies a constant energy.

"To an outsider, it looks like we sit around doodling all the time," Armstrong said. "But there's a lot of thought that goes into it."

Richard Chalupa, a 24-year-old landscape architecture student, said the studio experience at Clemson involves much more than theoretical learning.

"The best part of this studio is we're going to build," he said.

This semester, students in the Clemson design-build studio are working on an effort to improve Corinne Jones Park, a city playground also called Hester Park, in the Wagener Terrace neighborhood.

They've performed an in-depth analysis of the site, evaluating amenities, usage and traffic, and have come up with a detailed master plan. They are creating models and renderings in the studio and working with community stakeholders to prepare for an appearance before the city's Design Review Board, which must approve the project.

They hope to have the renovated park finished by Thanksgiving, said David Pastre, who oversees the Clemson studio.

Matt Compton, deputy director of parks operations for the city of Charleston, said the longstanding relationship between the city and Clemson has borne fruit many times over.

The parks department also has worked with Huff + Gooden Architects, especially when they need an "outside-of-the-box approach," Compton said. The firm designed the Herbert Hasell Pool building on Fishburne Street, he said.

Some of the firm's other projects include the Malcolm C. Hursey and Mary Ford elementary schools in North Charleston and the Early Childhood Development Center on Wentworth Street.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.