If there is one building type that every architect knows well, it is the Architecture School. The place where all architects are created, it is the architect incubator, the silent teacher that’s always there. Architects will speak often of their schools, describing their buildings to each other in arcane lingo, painting vivid backdrops for stories of late nights, struggles and triumphs on their way to understanding their chosen craft.
The relationship between architects and architecture schools is unique, and it is rare for an architect to have the opportunity to design one, rarer still to design an addition to one’s own. Such is the case with Lee III, Thomas Phifer’s addition to Clemson University’s Lee Hall.
Built in 1960, Lee Hall was conceived as a pristine cloister on the campus edge, inwardly focused, with a courtyard entry. A later addition to the rear, Lee II, presented broad expanses of windowless masonry, with studios and offices opening onto a second, internal courtyard. A collection of places for quiet learning, while wonderful in many ways, Lee Hall was an enclave.
With the completion of Lee III this spring, Phifer has responded to the enclave with a design that is at once playful, rational and open. John Jacques, Phifer’s former professor and his collaborator now 35 years later, describes the design as turning the cloister “inside out.”
Recalling his earliest days at Clemson as “a young, young, student,” Phifer says he often felt insecure and unsure. Searching for direction, he would find himself wandering the halls, visiting art and landscape studios and absorbing the work of older students. In his wanderings he would find comfort in the realization that others, too, were searching, a realization that built confidence.
“Everyone wanted to close their doors,” he says. But by opening doors and removing walls, Phifer sought to recreate in Lee III the atmosphere he yearned for as a student – an open, collegial environment where students and teachers mingle, disciplines overlap and learning occurs spontaneously.
The result is a romantically utilitarian pavilion that openly presents itself, inviting the public in and encouraging inhabitants to gaze out across open space.
Diagrammatically, as always with a Phifer design, this building looks simple, completely perceptible almost immediately. But the simplicity is deceptive. While Phifer’s North Carolina Museum of Art first appears mysterious, revealing itself almost reluctantly, Lee III is the opposite.
What first appears simply as a well-crafted box becomes more subtle the closer one gets. Approaching the building by foot, a series of translucent shrouds, rooftop sun control devices, become visible, lending a vaguely anthropomorphic profile to the roof. Moving closer, the box itself seems somehow warped, the result of an almost imperceptible, slightly disorienting curve in the roof’s surface.
Closer still, the broad west masonry wall that visually ties the design to the original building breaks free at the edges, delaminated from both building and ground, floating free in striking contrast to the heavier masonry of the earlier buildings.
The north and south facades, by contrast, are lyrical expanses of ultra-clear glass set behind a lacy pattern of y-shaped columns that support delicate translucent roof projections framing and filtering daylight at the building’s edge. And the less visible east façade actually folds into the otherwise rectilinear plan, in straightforward deference to an adjacent ravine.
This well-crafted box is, in fact, fractured and playful, warped and filigreed, providing a subtle foil to an otherwise highly rational scheme. Inside, the building is organized around a series of 4 parallel 2-story bars – taut, rectilinear machines for learning – connected by a bridge that extends into Lee II.
Housing faculty offices and seminar rooms, these bars overlook and modulate a single, expansive studio floor. Tree-like steel columns rise above the bars and splay out to frame circular skylights that provide diffused light evenly throughout the space. Interior finishes such as exposed concrete floors, metal roof decking and steel beams are straightforward and utilitarian, giving the space an industrial feel.
The result is a building that is part Louis Kahn and part Albert Kahn. It is at once a study in the poetics of light and form, and a pragmatic, no-nonsense response to a complex design problem. While this fusion of poetry and pragmatics is a hallmark of Phifer’s work, it is perhaps most clear in Lee III, a building that must inspire and take abuse over time, while remaining a flexible teaching lab. Nothing about this building appears precious, yet because it is so rigorously organized, it is unmistakably sculptural.
What may be most intriguing about Lee III, though, has more to do with sound and touch than sight. Entering, one almost gets the feeling the power is off. The building is literally silent. Absent is that familiar “whoosh” when you open the door, the shock of cold air hitting the skin, and the background hum of air moving through ducts. It is comfortable inside but not jarringly so, and the only sounds are the soft murmurs of students and crisp distant footsteps.
In fact, as it turns out, the power is almost off, owing to a sophisticated series of sustainable systems. Outside, an array of pipes plunges deep in the ground, capturing the earth’s steady temperature, to radiantly heat and cool the floor year round. Various sensors control windows and lights, exhausting air, admitting breezes, regulating humidity, and providing artificial lighting as needed. Air flows through faculty offices at low volume, relying on natural convection to regulate temperature. Together these measures result in a building that is intimately synchronized with its environment.
These individual systems, however, are only part of a more fundamental strategy. In fact, the very building itself is a sustainable macro-system. East and west masonry walls guard against harsh sun while north and south glass admits controlled daylight, pulling it deep inside. Playfully sculptural shrouds dot a rooftop meadow, protecting skylights from direct sunlight, on a green roof that absorbs and filters rainwater for reuse. Inside, the 2-story faculty office bars that modulate the main volume also contain their own micro-climates – teacher terrariums overlooking open studios. Each of these purposefully chosen systems, shapes, surfaces and forms coalesce in a design that belies its complexity through a relentless pursuit of clarity.
“Profoundly simple” is how Jacques describes the design, recalling Einstein’s famous admonition to “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” And indeed the building’s clarity is transformational.
Recalling that, even as a student, Phifer approached his work with well-established discipline, Jacques describes his process 35 years later as a tireless cycle of questioning, testing and simplifying. He shares that before Phifer started to design Lee III, he spent untold hours, over days of meetings, listening, occasionally asking questions and mostly absorbing.
Jacques adds “We never worried about the design. Tom just approached the process with tremendous, quiet confidence. He would go away with the most difficult design problem and always come back with an elegant solution.” He also says Phifer would press further, often scrapping his own solutions in favor of clearer, simpler ones the more deeply he understood the problem. The result is a building that delights, teaches and inspires while remaining a backdrop for the work at hand.
Recently speaking with Kate Schwennsen, Chair of the School of Architecture, she told me the building makes her happy every day. From her office, looking across the studios, she is able to watch the daily creative ebb and flow and the kinetic effect of ever-changing daylight across space. She reflects on how the students have already responded to their new environment, absorbing its sophisticated rhythms and proportions, and how, inspired by the environmentally conscious design, they have created a “building stewardship council.” Both she and Jacques cite endless examples of how Lee III has inspired its new charges, and they delight in the countless visitors that show up daily to take it all in.
Discussing Lee III, Phifer, too, continually returns to the building’s users. He looks forward to studios filled with sketches and models, with paper, cardboard and color everywhere. Visiting the studio recently, it was indeed clear to see how the students’ work itself completes the design.
It brought to mind Phifer’s vision of the day when trees grow to engulf the North Carolina Museum of Art, seasonally cloaking it, marking the passage of time as the building endures. Similarly, one imagines Lee III, the Silent Teacher, gradually succumbing to the seasonal swell of creativity, and reemerging in an endless cycle as her students learn, grow and finally wander into the world to practice their craft.
Note: This article is the second in a two-part series, following “Art in the Open: Thomas Phifer’s North Carolina Museum of Art” published in Book 15. The Lee Hall Addition was designed in collaboration with Greenville-based architect-of-record, McMillan Pazdan Smith.
Link to Thomas Phifer and Partners website