Putting the BAR's role in correct perspective

A rendering of Clemson's proposed architecture center (bottom center) in relationship with neighboring buildings near Meeting, George and Calhoun streets. (Allied Works/Provided)

I would like to address some misconceptions written recently regarding the Board of Architectural Review, specifically pertaining to the proposed Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston.

A recent Post and Courier editorial described the BAR process as follows: "Traditionally, at the first stage (as outlined in the old rule), the BAR gives conceptual approval for the building's height, scale and mass. The second (preliminary) approval involves the building's architecture."

This would imply that the two are not at all related, and reminds me of an old cartoon in which two people are looking at a building's completely blank facade after a hurricane, with one exclaiming "The storm blew all the architecture off!"

The height, scale and massing of a building are integral components of its architectural design and cannot be viewed independently. Similarly, architecture is not simply stuff added to a building - besides the height, scale, and massing, architectural design involves proportion, material use, fenestration, detailing, and so on (not to mention other complex issues such as accommodating a program, weather-tightness, building codes, budget constraints, etc.).

Thus, at the first stage of BAR review, the board is not presented with a few blank boxes outlining where a building might go, with the "architecture" hopefully to be added later. Instead, a significant amount of information is provided - materials are more or less defined, and items such as window sizes and locations, the general shape of the building, roof slopes, building entrances, cornice lines, etc., are shown. These elements - ideally acting in concert with the height, scale, and massing - also define the general architectural direction of a building.

Anyone who has ever attended a BAR meeting understands that the initial review of a project cannot help but illustrate its general architectural direction. Besides this not really being a "new rule," it's simple common sense. When I was the city architect working with the BAR, the term was used often, with the intent being to clarify the review as the design moved forward in the process.

It may not be understood by the public that for a project like the Clemson building, an incredible amount of work is required just for the very first BAR review. Helping to establish that the "architectural direction" is appropriate is critical to the applicant as the project develops further.

Since the BAR did not specifically state that changes should be made in this regard to the Clemson building in its initial approval, it should come as no surprise that the design did not suddenly change direction when presented at the second step.

This is not to imply that those elements mentioned above (fenestration, materials, proportions, etc.) cannot or should not be revised - even significantly, if it was noted in a previously - at a subsequent review. (Otherwise, why have the review?) However, it is unrealistic and unfair to assume that an architectural direction previously presented, discussed and approved without directive comments for change could somehow be completely disregarded at a later stage, as a few seem to be suggesting should happen for the Clemson building.

Much has also been written regarding the BAR's handling of the Clemson building's architectural style, with many declaring that if the current design is built it will surely be the end of our dear city. Despite those fears that the sky is falling, it is much more clear that a building's inappropriate height, scale and/or massing can do much greater damage within a historic district than any particular style ever could.

As an extreme example, the People's Building is a traditionally designed structure, but its height makes it clearly out of context on Broad Street.

Two buildings across the street from one another, the Charleston County Library and 75 Calhoun Street, are both traditionally inspired in their design approach. Yet that block is out of character with the rest of Charleston, due to both buildings' windowless street-level facades, poor proportions, and general massing. (To be fair, there are many contemporary designs that share these traits.)

Even the new Galliard Auditorium, which is designed in a classical style using high-quality materials, could be considered out of character (and certainly out of scale with George Street) when its heavy dose of detailed ornamentation is compared to our city's generally much more reserved architecture. So while we all like to argue about style, that is really not the issue.

Charleston is not simply a museum for tourists to visit. We are a diverse and active city which similarly includes a wide collection of architectural styles, some of which are more popular than others. ("Old-looking" is not a style.)

Regardless, the BAR does not determine architectural style. Nor does it base its decisions on how many of us are opposed or in support; it only tries to ensure that whatever is proposed is designed well.

While this concept is perhaps new to those following the Clemson building's BAR process, the issue of architectural style is a discussion that has gone on for years and will continue.

Eddie Bello, AIA, was director of urban design and preservation for the city of Charleston from 2000 through 2009.