The Board of Architectural Review was unable to vote on the latest round of designs for a new Clemson Architecture Center building in Charleston Tuesday night. Three of the board's six members present at the meeting recused themselves at the last minute citing various conflicts of interest, so the latest step in the approval process was postponed until an unspecified later date.
Clemson University and its team of designers — Charleston-based EE Fava Architects and Portland, Ore.-based AlliedWorks — came prepared for an intense second round of scrutiny Tuesday night after the board granted initial approval to the building's size and height in October 2012*. They had prepared a scale model of the building to present to the board, and world-renowned head architect Brad Cloepfil had flown from Portland to give a defense of his design, which some local critics have described as out of touch with the historic architecture of the Holy City. Cloepfil did not get to defend his controversial modern design Tuesday night.
About an hour into the board meeting, which was packed with audience members sitting on the floor after chairs ran out, BAR Chairman Craig Bennett announced that one of the board members would have to sit out the preliminary approval discussion due to an "unexpected conflict." He said the board had approved an alternate who could sit in for the board member, but the board would have to wait until the alternate arrived at the meeting. The Clemson project was fourth on the agenda, so in the meantime, the board moved on to other items.
Then, after the board discussed another agenda item, Bennett announced that the board would not be able to review the Clemson project at all during the meeting. Murmurs filled the room, and a large contingent of Clemson students headed for the door. During a subsequent break in the meeting, when asked why the Clemson project was off the table, Bennett said he had already planned to recuse himself from the vote due to a teaching relationship with the Clemson Architecture Center, but that there were additionally "a couple that we didn't know about" who had to recuse themselves at the last minute during the meeting.
Bennett said that board member Janette Alexander's company had "a financial relationship" with the Architecture Center project, so she had to sit the vote out. Another board member, Sheila Wertimer, said during the break that she had to stay out of the discussion because she is working as the landscape architect on the project.
As for the backup board member, Bennett said that architect Whitney Powers, a former BAR member, had been called during the meeting to fill in on the vote, but Bennett said, "I gather she has come out as a board member publicly either in favor or opposed to [the design]." In fact, Powers has written two columns for the City Paper (one last November and one this week) strongly supporting the design.
In her column Wednesday, Powers had this to say:
Architecturally, if the center is built in its current form, it will enter the canon of the Charleston's architectural history as a direct manifestation of the cultural shift that is currently in motion, an appeal to the next generation and its vision for success in Charleston. The building seeks a deeper significance in the city than merely the superficiality of style, or gable roofs or multi-paned wood windows. It is, first and foremost, a suitably scaled building linked to the historic context by its ability to connect interior spaces with outdoor ones, to provide engagement at the street level, and to respond in a remarkable, physical manner with the natural energies of our locale. More importantly, it should inspire even more appropriate contemporary buildings in our city."
In the lobby after Bennett's announcement, the architect Cloepfil was all grins.
"I get to come to Charleston on the most beautiful day of the fall, go to dinner, have a drink. It's a happy day," Cloepfil said. "And you know, we're going to keep working on the project ... We'll just be able to present more information."
"It's really all a part of the process," Cloepfil added. "It's more disappointing for the people that showed up for the big show."
* Formed in 1931, the BAR reviews all new construction and demolition within the city's historic districts. According to the city's zoning ordinance, the purpose of the BAR is "the preservation and protection of the old historic or architecturally worthy structures and quaint neighborhoods which impart a distinct aspect to the city and which serve as visible reminders of the historical and cultural heritage of the city, the state, and the nation."