It’s noisy on the stretch of Calhoun Street between Meeting and East Bay, between the droning chirp of insects and the hammering at Buist Academy, which is currently undergoing an earthquake-proof renovation. But the biggest bang on Tuesday morning had to come from Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., wearing a neon yellow vest and manning a track hoe, as he toppled a corner of the canopy cover of the Gaillard Auditorium’s George Street driveway. The sound marked the creation of a new Gaillard Center, the $142 million project that’s met its share of controversy. What is now a construction site is wrapped up in a blue ribbon banner like a present that won’t be opened until 2015.

Before the burst of concrete dust, the City Paper met with the project’s lead architect, Craig P. Williams, of the Washington, D.C.-based firm David M. Schwarz Architects, in the Charleston Civic Design Center, just steps away from the Gaillard. These days, Williams is averaging a trip to Charleston about every three weeks, as he’s done since early 2010 when the plans for the Gaillard Center were first devised. The colorful renderings of the proposed building show a structure much more in line with historic Holy City architecture than the budget-conscious mid-century eyesore that currently stands in its place. It was originally built by Frank Lucas during the late 1960s, an era that Williams refers to as “a period of some of the worst American architecture.” Even Lucas has told Williams that the Gaillard it needs a change.

“We look at it and, being from Washington, D.C., call it the poor man’s Kennedy Center,” Williams says. “It’s tired. It’s not appropriate to Charleston, and at the time it was built, it was in a period of urban renewal — read: urban removal. It broke up the sizes of the block it set back from the street it created a not very humanist piece of architecture and interrupted the fabric of the city, interrupted the sense of pedestrianism that is Charleston’s greatest strengths, or one of the greatest strengths.”
Williams hasn’t been to a show at the Gaillard. He keeps missing out on Spoleto, and, frankly, the space is under-utilized the other 49 weeks of the year. The new project will provide an opportunity to address the Gaillard’s deficiencies as a performance space and an exhibit hall, and it will also reconnect the building to the city as it takes on the approaches of pedestrianism, preservation of streetscapes, and humanist architecture.

As Williams points out, the space as it is today is not without its many, many faults. The current theater, with its over 2,600 seats, is an unwieldy size for providing quality acoustics. Its layout — with a single orchestra level and a single large balcony — does little to provide every theatergoer with the same experience. The hall also has few patron amenities, with too few bathrooms. Williams even compares the concession stands to what you’d see at a county fair. The Gaillard is also not ADA compliant, though the city has made attempts to meet some of those standards.

But after Williams, City of Charleston lead architect Michael Maher, and Skanska USA Project Executive Bob Ferguson have their way with the structure, it’s going to be a completely different kind of Gaillard. The performance hall will be more like an opera house than a theater, with the space being narrowed to 1,800 seats and acoustic considerations taken into account. In turn, that will allow room for more restrooms, and it will provide space for sloped corridors and elevators for barrier-free seating at every level and price point. Meanwhile, the banquet facility and exhibition hall, which Williams describes currently as a detail-less concrete block, will be made to be subdividable. With the reduced size of the auditorium, along with technical upgrades, the building should be more suitable for more different types of events.

Williams also promises the Gaillard will no longer appear as just one giant building. Two- to three-story municipal offices — with lots of windows — will also be added on to the existing structure. They’ll be built out closer to George and Anson streets, coming up to the sidewalk and mimicking the more typical set-back dimensions you would find elsewhere in Charleston. And not only will the structure be more traditional looking, it will now be more pedestrian friendly, with a kid-friendly green space included as well.

“I think from the client side, which includes the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation, who are raising money privately, and Mayor Riley and the City of Charleston government, there was a great desire to have the building appear more in keeping with the historic traditions of Charleston than the mid-century or later modern that the original building was,” Williams says of the future aesthetic appearance of the Gaillard.

“We did not specifically copy, ape, or imitate any existing arch style in Charleston or elsewhere in the world even,” he adds. “The language, the grammar is classical. The vocabulary, the specific details, is sort of of our own invention. And I think that it’s got roots, the detailing, in late French Renaissance, which seems vaguely appropriate for Charleston given its Huguenot roots and the like. It introduces a level of playfulness and curvilinearity in some of the elements.”

At the groundbreaking for the new construction, Mayor Riley said, “Cities don’t naturally happen. People make things in cities happen. People shape the history of cities as they do communities and civilizations, for that matter. When they seize the opportunity to do something ambitious and transformative, they then put the city on a different path.” He’s hoping they’re creating a Gaillard that citizens will “revere and love” for centuries to come, just like Charlestonians did hundreds of years ago.

“We’re not talking about 500 events a year, two a day or anything like that,” Williams says. “We’re talking about a reasonable utilization, and that will increase the exposure of the building to the community. The fact that there are going to be more entrances, more doors, more windows is going to just make the whole thing feel like it’s part of the community and more inviting.”