Aspiring architects couldn’t hope to study in a better place than Charleston, South Carolina. A jewel of the South, Charleston’s tree-draped streets stretch through one charming, movie set-worthy neighborhood after another. The city boasts more than 2,500 historical buildings spanning eight distinct architectural styles, including Colonial, Georgian, Victorian and Art Deco. The coastal, urban setting provides an immediacy to some of the most compelling challenges facing similar communities globally, like rapid growth – and as a natural delta, the region is perfect for studying the impacts of climate change.
For more than 30 years, the Clemson University School of Architecture has mined the city’s unique resources for information and inspiration. In return, the city receives knowledge and attention from some of the brightest young minds in architecture.
Today, Clemson houses three architecture graduate programs in a historic red brick building that started its life as a textile manufacturing plant in 1881 and later became a cigar factory. Named the Clemson Design Center Charleston (CDC.C), the graduate programs together with undergraduate programs operating under its roof have steadily built the School of Architecture’s reputation as one of the premier architecture programs in the nation.
“In many ways, this place is a manifestation of the best way you could fulfill a land grant mission,” said James Stevens, director of Clemson’s School of Architecture. “We put the students right here in the center of Charleston, where they continually work on projects that benefit the city. There can’t be a better example of what we should be doing.”
Ray Huff, director of the CDC.C who also happened to grow up in Charleston, said the historic urban setting of his hometown has become indispensable in the learning journey of every student who attends one of the programs.
“What finer urban laboratory for a student to study?” said Huff. “The urban space is uniquely different from a college town or a small town. And what a remarkable city. The lessons of good urban spaces just abound here.”
Bridges to the community
Students who pass through the CDC.C come away with more than just a degree. The faculty has built an innovative curriculum teaching the skills of design and architecture with real-world impact, like the groundbreaking Architecture + CommunityBUILD certificate program.
Students in A+cB design and construct a functional piece of architecture, start to finish, for a local community every semester. To date, they’ve built more than a dozen bridges, community gardens, pavilions and other structures that have positively impacted neighborhoods all over the Charleston area.
“What we do is not just build stuff. It’s more about engaging the community,” said David Pastre, senior lecturer and coordinator of the A+cB program. When Pastre co-founded the program in 2014, the projects were temporary installations for the College of Charleston and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Pastre adds that even though they were temporary, the budgets for each project were substantial.
“We’d have $10,000 for materials, but the show would only be up for three months and then it would go away,” said Pastre. “We started thinking we could put in that amount of effort with that amount of money and create permanent things. And we wanted to start engaging the community. It was a conscious effort. That’s how it evolved into what it is now.”
The efforts of Pastre and his students have not gone unnoticed by city officials. Recently, Pastre and a cohort of his students presented an overview of their work to the Charleston City Council. Many were taken aback by the scope and impact of the work.
The A+cB is just one of many examples of the wide-ranging impact Clemson architecture’s presence has had in and around Charleston and beyond.
Students in the Master of Resilient Urban Design program have partnered with the Riley Center for Livable Communities to create a design fellowship for South Carolina mayors called the Riley Mayors’ Design Fellowship, named after former Charleston mayor of 40 years, Joseph P. Riley.
“It’s a design fellowship for South Carolina mayors because essentially mayors make a lot of design decisions and they’re not typically trained designers,” said Stevens. “Each graduate student is assigned a town in South Carolina. They study that town and prepare a briefing on the city: what are the assets, what are the needs, etcetera. Then, we bring six to eight mayors from those towns to Charleston annually and teach them about urban design and how it could impact their economy, jobs, livability, and safety.”
Meanwhile, in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, director Jon Marcoux uses Charleston’s wealth of historic structures as teaching tools for his students to visit, move through and touch.
Graduate student Patricia Ploehn, who is going into her second year in the Historic Preservation graduate program, said Clemson’s program offers a perfect balance of hands-on learning and studio time.
“I’d heard about this program since I was an undergraduate student, and I really wanted something that’s both hands-on and research-based,” said Ploehn. “I didn’t want to be so heavily bogged down with site visits all the time. This program has a perfect blend. Some days we’re in the studio; other days, we’re out on-site visits looking at buildings, documenting landscapes and stuff like that. I love it.”
Inspiring an inclusive next generation of architects
The CDC.C’s reach extends even further into the fabric of Charleston through a series of outreach programs aimed at school children. The Clemson Architecture Center Charleston (CAC.C) developed a program called Amazing Architecture where up to 600 students from local school districts are brought to the center in groups of 50 for an intense two-hour session in which student instructors teach the students to build a structure using the patented Sim [PLY] production process created in the School of Architecture.
“We build half the room and have them build the other half. It is rip-roaring loud, it’s intense, and they’re completely engaged,” said Huff. “That’s been a huge success for us.”
Huff said outreach programs like Amazing Architecture help bring a more diverse population into the architecture and design professions.
“Nationally, the lack of diversity in the profession of architecture is profound – two percent of American architects are African-American,” said Huff. “We’re doing our best to change that.”
Another benefit of being centered in Charleston for so long is that it has enabled CDC.C faculty to build strong relationships with local contractors, construction companies and the neighboring cities’ planning offices. These relationships have been key to the Center’s success, with the added bonus of strong internship programs.
“Last semester, we had 22 students in internships, even during COVID-19, all with private firms, city planning, or construction companies,” said Huff. “We’ve got firms, and even the city now, who’ve had 40, 45 student interns over the years. We love those relationships.”
Historic preservation graduate student Maria Short said those relationships have been vital to her studies in Charleston.
“The professors we have here are really well connected,” she said. “Some of them have been working here for decades, so we get to go to a lot of job sites and see things in the works. You get to see how things come together. It’s like a living classroom. There’s no better way to learn.”
Teamwork, collaboration, growth
Cross-programming and resource sharing between the various CDC.C programs are an integral part of course offerings, said Huff. The Center is designed as one large, multi-functional space so students in the different programs can work alongside each other.
“The space is designed so that students from each program mix and mingle,” said Huff. “Because the field they’re going into is not a solo world. It just isn’t. You need to learn how to be a collaborator, so we collapse everything – undergraduate and graduate – into the same studio.”
With planned enrollment of 100 students working in small ateliers, the intimate setting encourages cross-program engagement and diversity that is more challenging for larger venues. This results in very agile programs capable of adapting and re-positioning in response to opportunities the locale offers.
The Center’s overall approach has proven to be highly successful, with 90 to 95 percent of graduates hired immediately upon earning their degrees. Its reputation continues to gain widespread respect, elevating its ability to attract significant talent among local practitioners, community institutions and other resources that are not immediately proximate to the main campus.
Huff said that, as influential as the CDC.C has become, they hope to make it even more so moving forward. Plans are underway to add to the roster. The Greenville-based Master of Real Estate Development is expanding to the CDC.C with a one-year program for experienced professionals, geared to people who might already be in the development game but who want to hone their skills. The first cohorts are expected at the Center in 2022. Other programs using the space include Architecture + Health, which built a mock-up of a surgical suite amid the brick columns and drafting tables in 2017 to research how to improve patient surgical outcomes.
“The whole idea of this building and why the design is so interesting is it’s an interchangeable container,” said Stevens. “We have the ability to grow and change continually.”
Pastre said another key to the CDC.C’s success is the singular, shared vision of the faculty.
“All the programs in CDC.C have a shared approach to service and learning,” he said. “Every one of us wants our work to have an impact in the city of Charleston. It’s what’s awesome about teaching here.”
That shared vision has enabled the CDC.C to impact Charleston across the entire architectural spectrum, from the urban planning scale that envelops entire towns or regions, to Pastre’s A+cB program that zooms in to the acre.
“The Morrill Act of 1862 created the land-grant university,” said Huff. “The very basis of the Morrill Act is that land grants are in service to the states where they reside. In keeping with that, we’ve made it our mission to serve this community and the state of South Carolina in every way we can. It’s as important to us as our mission to educate in the skills of architecture, urban design and preservation.”