MOUNT PLEASANT — The architect of the Medal of Honor Museum planned at Patriots Point said his design would be ruined if it were lowered by 45 feet to fit into the town's existing height limit.
Moshe Safdie of Safdie Architects said he will visit soon as part of a wider effort to persuade town officials to approve his current design, which would rise about 125 feet off the site. The town currently limits new construction there to 80 feet.
"I think a lot is at stake. I did not propose the height of the building lightly. I studied it very carefully," he said.
He said the design reflects the museum's proximity to the aircraft carrier Yorktown, whose control tower rises to a comparable height.
"I thought that somehow the physical presence of the museum should be balancing out and a counterpoint to the aircraft carrier," he said.
However, the town's Planning Commission did not agree. Earlier this year, it voted to recommend Town Council deny the plan.
Safdie, whose international works include the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington and Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada, said his design was based not only on the museum's needs but also on the site on Charleston Harbor.
The building itself is in part a memorial, with a pentagonal shape that echoes a star — the Medal of Honor design — "and at the same time works very well with the exhibits and the circulation," he said.
Safdie said his biggest challenge was giving the building symbolic meaning, and its proposed height is part of that.
"I thought it should be a building that’s quite robust. It sits there at the water’s edge and is subject to hurricanes and forces of nature. I decided to make it concrete, wrapped in concrete," he said. "At the same time, the kind of geometry and form that thrusts above the tree line and creates the appropriate symbolism that has to do with sacrifice and heroism."
Safdie said he plans to explain the design further when he visits Charleston later this month to give a lecture at the Gibbes Museum of Art.
Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie said the town agreed to defer the issue this month, and he is unsure when it will appear on an agenda.
In addition to the height, he said the town also is concerned about increasing the height limit only to see the project not built there.
“Then we’ve created a situation where we have entitled some of the most valuable waterfront land on Charleston Harbor with a height that is much higher than what the ordinances of the town of Mount Pleasant say,” he said. “That has put us in a very bad position.”
If the town decides to stick to its existing 80-foot limit, Safdie said he would tell the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation Board that his design would be too compromised to proceed.
"You can always solve the problem, but to smear the building all over the site in a low structure that is invisible because it’s below the trees, to spread it out, that doesn’t make sense for the program," he said. "I think it's an extraordinary opportunity for Mount Pleasant to have this institution there. ... We're honored to be part of it, and I think we’re very responsible in our approach. I hope Town Council will recognize that.”
Bill Phillips, CEO of the foundation, which has raised about $19 million toward the $100 million project, has said the group has invested $3.5 million on the design — too much to change it. If Mount Pleasant doesn't accept it, he said it could get built somewhere else.
Safdie said it would be the board's decision whether to move the project to another city.
"It's not for me to say," he said.