Mario Gooden knew he wanted to be an architect ever since he was a child, but the way he realized his calling also was a harbinger of his unusual approach.
“It wasn’t playing with blocks,” he says.
Instead, his focus on architecture blossomed as he analyzed the spaces presented on television shows and as he pored through books during Saturday visits to his local public library.
“I particularly became interested in architecture because it offered what I didn’t see every day in Orangeburg. I didn’t see houses designed by Richard Meier or Michael Graves,” he says.
He received a drafting board in the sixth grade and still remembers one of the first things he drew on it: a dome-shaped house of the future. “I was trying to think beyond the limits of the house I grew up in,” he says. “My parents probably still have that drawing somewhere.”
That beyond-the-limits thinking has come to define his professional approach, both in the classroom and in practice. In a sense, this interest in the modern and experimental may be one reason why much of his work, and the work of his colleague, architect Ray Huff, lies well beyond the tradition-loving Lowcountry.
But Huff + Gooden Architects’ local profile is rising markedly this year. Not only is its work on display at the Charleston Civic Design Center, but its renovation of Memminger Auditorium will serve as the city’s most important new stage as Spoleto Festival USA kicks off next week.
While Gooden oversaw changes to the building itself – changes that create a more flexible performance space, improve circulation and handicapped access and provide new room for building and storing stage sets – his design may be most noteworthy for thinking outside the box.
The design includes a sloping courtyard fronting on Beaufain Street, a space Gooden conceives as an outdoor stage, a small plaza and gathering area that serves as a gift to the public realm. The main addition to the auditorium ultimately will be covered by a jessamine-filled screen.
“It was an opportunity to think not only of a building, but also of the city and its urban fabric,” he says. “We’re very proud of the contrast of historic and modern. We’re very interested in that possibility.”
Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden says the festival tapped Huff + Gooden Architects partly because of interesting conversations he had with Gooden.
“We talked about having a point of view, even if it was different from my point of view. I was eager to have someone who would push back with their own ideas,” Redden said. “We knew it was going to be a process of, ‘What about this? What about that?’ I think that’s the relationship we wanted to have. … (And) there were moments of tension and moments of sort of talking out the issues and moments of, ‘Wow, this is really terrific.’ ”
But Redden said Gooden responded well, helping to bring in the project on time, on budget and on par with the festival’s hopes. “I think it’s been done enormously well. I think it’s a tribute to Mario and to Steve Edmunds and Will Danielson of NBM and also a tribute to Rhys Williams, who is the technical director to the festival.”
Gooden says a pivotal moment came during his third year as an architecture student at Clemson University, when he sought extra feedback from professor Robert Miller, who now heads the university’s architecture center in Charleston. Specifically, he was interested in Miller’s thoughts on how architecture involves more than how buildings function.
He received his graduate degree in architecture from Columbia University. “I wanted the extreme opposite context of what I grew up in and went to college in, and New York was that,” he says.
One of his professors there was Stephen Holl, who once told him, “Richard Meier does those kind of drawings, but they don’t mean too much. That kind of shook things up.”
Another instructor, Paola Iacucci, “would say, ‘You must free yourself.’ I had no idea what that meant.”
Columbia’s architecture school was becoming an increasingly experimental place, and that suited Gooden, who wanted to explore the unknown. “That’s what we try to do in our firm as much as budgets and clients will allow. We try to be on the edge as much as we can.”
He graduated in 1990 and came to Charleston, where he helped Huff work on the ILA building at Morrison Drive and Huger Street, a building that had to be razed to make way for the new Cooper River bridge.
He spent several years mixing work at other architectural firms with teaching roles at several architectural schools before returning to Charleston to partner with Huff in 1997.
Before Memminger, Gooden and Huff’s highest profile work was a 2005 art and architecture exhibit inside the Gibbes Museum of Art and the Herbert Hasell aquatic facility, which won an honor award from the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The firm also has worked on Mary Ford and Malcolm C. Hursey elementary schools in North Charleston.
While it’s a prominent architecture firm in the Lowcountry, fewer than half of its buildings have been built here.
The architects worked on projects as diverse as museums in Los Angeles and Detroit, a residential compound in Ghana, a new house in East Biloxi, Miss., and renovations to a federal building in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Gooden says a favorite project in the works is the Virginia Key Beach Park Museum in Miami, which mixes the challenge of building on a beach with the role of telling a story about a black Dade County beach during segregation.
He may be one of the few architects who can’t instantly name a favorite Charleston building.
“I don’t know if I really have a favorite in Charleston,” he says. “I’m appreciative of the context, (but) it’s maybe taken as too precious sometimes.”