In a way, it’s a shame that the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston will be leaving behind its Franklin Street space for a brand-new structure on Meeting Street in a few years. The building, once home to a marine hospital and the Jenkins Orphanage, looks calmly historic from the outside, but on the inside it has sprouted modern innovations from seemingly every surface.
“Everything you see in this room, except for the furniture itself, was designed and built by students,” says architect Ray Huff, the center’s director and associate professor. An effortlessly cool man sitting in his effortlessly cool office, he refers to a shelving unit, a closet with a garage-like door, and basically everything around him except for the furniture. The same goes for bathroom sinks, library book shelves, and other useful apparatuses in the building. Projects like these force CAC students to work with a client — even if it’s Huff himself — on a budget, within a time limit, and according to code requirements. “We have begun to believe that there is a very direct correlation between making and learning,” Huff says of this focus on practical projects. “When you make something, there’s a certain realization that comes out of that process of having to be responsible for building.”
The CAC was developed by Clemson in the late 1980s as a more immediate and accessible alternative to the architecture school’s program in Genoa, Italy (currently, they also have another base in Barcelona). “Clemson to this day, it’s not rural, but it’s a small town,” Huff says, “and in studying architecture, there’s a certain advantage of being able to study, live, and work in an urban environment.” Students would come to Charleston to live and learn for a semester, and professors from the university would come down to lecture throughout the year. Huff served as the original director and also taught for the first 13 years, back when the program was housed at the College of Charleston.
After its move to the current location, he stepped back to focus on his private practice, Huff + Gooden Architects, which has offices in Charleston and New York and did the smart renovation of the Memminger Auditorium. Under the next leader, Rob Miller, the school started developing its design-build component, directing work toward community service projects. The program took on additional adjunct faculty and grew to 22 students, including the occasional landscape architecture or grad student. In 2010, when Miller took a position at the University of Arizona, Huff was asked to be interim director and eventually took on the position permanently once again.
In the last 15 years, the CAC has completely reconstituted itself. The professors no longer hand students a brief at the beginning of the year, beating them over their heads with concepts until the students eke out a 2-D design or 3-D model. Now the work is more tangible: A playground bench at Corrine Jones Park in Wagener Terrace. The raised platform at the Motoi Yamamoto Saltworks exhibit at the Halsey. A proposed complex of 17 buildings in a village in Ghana and a historical center on Johns Island. All were conceived by CAC students, and all but the latter two were constructed by them, just like Huff’s bookshelves. The students are now using their skills as a way to build and engage communities.
“One of the things that’s really important about architecture is there’s an inherently social component to it,” Huff explains. “It’s occupiable. It occupies a place in a city or a country, in a landscape in some fashion, so it is affecting the community in some tangible, real way. So how do we then use the training of young architects to recognize the social viability of architecture?”
Huff sees a value in accelerating the integration of the education of young people and the social fabric of their community. “The students then understand that there is an inherent set of values that accompany that, and they have a responsibility as designers to be cognizant of that,” he says. “And so when they make decisions, they’re making very critical decisions, be it the design of a park or a new building or an urban infrastructure, that there’s more then what we typically see.”
When the Clemson Architecture Center makes the move to its new space, it’ll expand from 22 students to 40-plus, and it’ll take on a more interdisciplinary focus, emphasizing historic preservation, landscape design, and urban design as well. As the city grows, he hopes the center will too, and that it will become an important part of a place that will be a forum for good ideas about architecture and an urban environment. Huff believes Charleston is on the cusp of something, having witnessed a recent influx of creative people who are not necessarily beholden to the old values the city has had in the past, and the Clemson Architecture Center fits into this transformation. Eventually, even the CAC’s new modern building will physically transform Meeting Street.
“[Charleston is] a fertile ground, because it’s been so tame for so long that the opportunity to find rich engagement I think is there,” he says. “So I believe the Clemson Architecture Center is so well positioned, and now we’re beginning to think, how do we now continue to become relevant? How do we close the gap between the academy and the community?”