Banks Concert Venue Still Up in the Air

“The CSO vote has been unanimously taken care of, in case that’s all you were here for,” were city councilman P.G. Sittenfeld’s words of dismissal on Wednesday, June 20th at the city council meeting in regards to the concert venue that is in action to be developed at the Banks. Several people got up to leave after his swift comment, but the questions for city and county leaders were far from being answered.

Music and Event Management Inc., a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, won the vote over the Columbus based PromoWest for who would develop the venue. But we still don’t know which lot the venue will be built in, or if the City will agree to pay for the parking garage pad that will elevate the venue out of the floodplain.

The lots in question are lot 27, a space adjacent to the Paul Brown Stadium which has been a popular location for Bengals fans to tailgate prior to the games, or lot 24, a much larger space across the street just south of Radius at the Banks and General Electric’s Global Operations Center.

The Bengals, which claim to have veto rights over development over three stories in height adjacent to the stadium, are partial to the venue being located at lot 24 claiming the usage of the lot for tailgating before Bengals home games. On average the Bengals play eight games at home per season.

Lot 24, however, has already received a submission from a joint venture formed by Jeffrey R. Anderson Real Estate Inc., Pennrose Development and Greiwe Development Group for an $85 million mixed-use project.

A mixed-use development would be in better compliance with the Banks Master Plan, which has been the guiding planning document for the entire development since 2000. The plan identified that lot for mixed-use residential development. Additionally, county leaders have valued property at The Banks at $4 million an acre, so building on a more compact location would leave room available for future developers.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune has commented on the matter, emphasizing that the Bengals do not have veto rights, but the possibility is open for the development to go somewhere besides lot 27.

Counter to that statement, City Councilman David Mann said that the Bengals do have veto rights over the property. Mayor John Cranley’s response to Mann was that direct negotiations should be made with the Bengals in order to come to an agreement on the location. Cranley said that he, too, is open to lot 24 being used as a music venue. The site already has the parking garage podium built.

Tom Gabelman, the attorney advising the county on The Banks has mentioned that the symphony’s proposal incorporates developing in Lot 27 adjacent to Paul Brown Stadium and keeping Lot 23 as park space for more than 90 percent of the time when it is not being used for outdoor concert space. Portune has said that the city and the county need to come to a decision about the music venue by the end of June.

Yet to be addressed is the status of the parking garage. Presently, Hamilton County commissioners expect the city to contribute up to $10 million for the garage, with all revenue going towards the county. The theory behind having the city contribute is that they would receive financial benefits from the income taxes of the people who lived and worked there.

Cranley has said that the council needs to re-evaluate the city’s relationship with the county when it comes to the dispersion of the revenue. “With GE, we gave 85 percent of income tax back, so it has not worked out how the city believed,” Cranley stated at a joint City Council and Hamilton County Commission meeting in early June. “I’m not aware we have $10 million sitting around somewhere.”

Will the plans for lot 24 to be primarily residential be ignored in order to comply with the disputed veto power of the Bengals? And if so, what does that mean for the rest of the Banks development?

An 18-acre venue where there otherwise would have been residential housing could steer the Banks away from its original vision as a new downtown neighborhood teaming with residents, office workers and visitors to yet another entertainment district. While already bookended by two stadiums, the challenges are great but not insurmountable. Realizing the original vision adds more vibrancy to downtown and further helps grow the city and county tax base.

Ideally, even if the venue is built where MEMI proposed there will be enough land left at the riverfront to develop a complete neighborhood with a retail scene and community gathering spaces the way it was planned.

Opinion: Could Library Building Be Option for Public Radio Move?

If public libraries never existed in the United States their concept would baffle most people if proposed today: a 100% free and public space where tax dollars purchase and provide books, magazines, music, videos, technology, and other community services at zero cost to the individual. The public library has been a grand achievement in providing access to knowledge and services in this country, and the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County is no exception.

Our local library system is the 3rd largest publicly run library in the country, and the 15th largest when including university library systems. It is also the largest public library run at the county level with Boston and New York running city level systems. For perspective, Hamilton County’s library holdings are 52% larger than Chicago’s and more than double that of Cleveland, Seattle, Miami, and the state of Hawaii’s systems.

Like most public libraries, Hamilton County’s has undergone dramatic changes in services offered in the past decades due to the explosion in digital media and internet resources. While libraries still contain substantial physical holdings, most new resources are digital and require less space.

The Main Library branch in downtown Cincinnati was expanded in the 1990’s with the construction of the North Building, as the South Building was too full to hold new books and physical materials. According to the Public Library Board, the changes experienced by libraries over the past decades have rendered the North Building’s space unnecessary for current usage. Their reports suggest that the South Building could accommodate what the North Building houses today.

In 2016 and early 2017, the Board considered selling the building and underlying land to reduce its footprint and provide funds for branch renovations countywide. The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation, better known as 3CDC, had been involved in advising potential futures for the building and the site. Protests followed this news, and the outcry pushed the Board to retain the property while finding new uses for the building.

This keeps the land public, alleviating concerns of those fearing a privatization of public assets in an era of dwindling public resources. To fund branch renovations the Board instead placed a 1-mill tax levy on the May 2018 ballot, which passed 63%-37%.

So what to do with the North Building? Aside from demolition the building, its redevelopment potential is restricted due to the high ceilings and massive floorplates which were necessary to hold the weight of hundreds of thousands of books.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati Public Radio (CPR), the license holder of WVXU, WMUB, and WGUC is looking to move. CPR’s current space in the CET Building and garage at 1223 Central Pkwy behind Music Hall has been rumored to be redeveloped in the near future, due to its proximity to the future FCC Stadium and the deteriorating condition of its public parking garage.

CPR has proposed siting its new facility near city hall, at 9th and Plum, a block that Indianapolis developer Milhaus has expressed interest in constructing apartments on since 2016.

Why fight over one parking lot when there are plenty of other options to pursue?

There is one option that would give CPR a new space and potentially satisfy the repositioning of the Library’s North Building: Move CPR to the North Building.

CPR needs large spaces for their studios and equipment, as well as office space. While they may not entirely fill the North Building, they could anchor a new era in the life of this critical public space in the region’s core. Ideas for the remaining space could include a museum on public radio and public libraries which could accompany CPR, as well as other public uses. There could be a news ticker that wraps around the building fronting on Vine and 9th Streets, giving updates to downtown residents, workers, and visitors.

As UrbanCincy previously explored, this area of downtown can be a reactivated with more residential housing. More residents help drive the vibrancy of the core and will help activate retail storefronts already in the area. Despite having city departments, Pure Romance, and other office users, retail activation still lags in this part of the neighborhood that has seen generations of demolition for parking.

A move to the North Building for CPR could potentially reactivate 9th street, be close the Cincinnati Streetcar and keep the space public. Likewise, continued residential development in the northwest quadrant of downtown will strengthen and reconnect that area of downtown to Over-the-Rhine and the new FC Cincinnati Stadium. Seems like this could be a win-win for everyone.

Opinion: A Boulevard for Brent Spence Bridge Exit

Covington is in the midst of a redevelopment wave. A number of prominent historic buildings have recently been rehabbed and several large new mixed-use buildings are in the planning stages or under construction.

Two of the new projects, “Riverhaus” at 501 Main Street, and the John R. Green Lofts at 411 West 6th Street are scheduled to bring 369 new apartments into the Main Strasse neighborhood.  Census tract 603 covers most of the Main Strasse neighborhood and it shows 1,491 residents living there in 2015. Those two new projects will add a significant increase in the local residential population density.  Their ongoing progress reflects the demand for residential development in pedestrian-friendly urban spaces.

Part of Covington’s urban core that hasn’t seen any new residential development is the area north of 4th street between Madison Ave. and I-75.  Dubbed “Hamburger Heaven” in the city’s recent City Center Action plan, it contains multiple fast food restaurants, the sprawling one-story IRS center, and a sea of parking lots. Part of the reason the area hasn’t seen any development is that Covington’s 4th Street delivers 27,000+ cars per day to I-75. That much traffic is incompatible with pedestrian-friendly urban space.  

The City Center Action Plan makes redevelopment of the Hamburger Heaven and IRS sites a priority but it does not address the area’s inhospitable traffic. It’s a problem: How do you connect new development north of 4th street to the existing pedestrian-friendly urban fabric while maintaining all the traffic to the interstate?

The imminent closure of the IRS site presents an opportunity to address the problem. The 23-acre site covers 3-1/2 blocks of frontage on 4th street. Most of the remaining space adjacent to 4th street between the IRS site and I-75 consists of parking lots.

Once the IRS site is closed, the city of Covington should widen 4th street and convert it into a multiway boulevard.

A multiway boulevard consists of a series of central lanes to move through-traffic, side lanes with on-street parking to serve local vehicles and bicycles, and broad sidewalks to serve pedestrians. Tree-lined medians separate the local traffic from through-traffic, and trees on the sidewalk further separate pedestrians from traffic. Think of it as a “mixed-use street.” Because the street supports a different mix of uses – people, bicycles, transit, through traffic – it can more readily support mixed-use buildings at its edges. Mixed-use buildings add the density and diversity of uses that support pedestrian-friendly urban space.

San Francisco recently took an existing street and converted a portion of it into a new multiway boulevard. The creation of Octavia Boulevard was possible because an earthquake damaged a freeway and made it unusable. Instead of rebuilding the freeway, San Francisco added its right-of-way to a four-block stretch of Octavia Street, which became Octavia Boulevard.

Today, Octavia Boulevard moves 45,000 cars per day in two directions, it has side streets and broad sidewalks to serve local residents, and the creation of the street spurred new development on its edges. Octavia Boulevard sets a clear precedent for converting underutilized auto-oriented development into more productive mixed-use urban development. Octavia Boulevard is aesthetically pleasing, practical at moving traffic, and successful at promoting economic development.

To implement Covington’s “4th Street Boulevard Project” the street’s existing 50-foot right-of-way would be widened to the north to create a 100+ foot wide right-of-way.

The expanded right-of-way will accommodate the multiway boulevard’s additional lanes, medians, and sidewalks. Expanding the right-of-way will require part of the IRS parcel, a number of parking lots, and the demolition of a fast food chain restaurant.

Different design options could include making 4th street’s through lanes either one-way or two-way. A dedicated transit lane could be accommodated. Bicycles can share the local lanes with local vehicular traffic.  

Implementing the 4th Street Boulevard Project would have multiple effects that support the ongoing urban renaissance. The medians and parked cars provide protection for people to walk, eat, drink, and socialize outside. Trees also protect pedestrians and provide a canopy for shade and cooling. Bicycle use will be safe and easy. Converting 4th street from a single use – channeling cars to I-75 – into a multiway boulevard will facilitate the development of dense mixed-use buildings.

There’s a historic opportunity here. The IRS site was born out of federal urban renewal projects in the 1950s. Its time is now at an end.  The trend of the future is to live, work, and play in the urban core. The current traffic on 4th street is a barrier to urban development. Converting 4th street into a multi-way boulevard will support the traffic flow but mitigate its negative impacts. Recent examples provide good evidence.

If the ongoing urban development is to be sustained and space north of 4th street – just blocks away from the Ohio River – is to be put to its highest and best use, then the traffic along 4th street must be addressed. Converting 4th street into a multiway boulevard will do just that.


This is a guest editorial by Chris Meyer that originally appeared in the CNU Midwest blog. CNU and CNU Midwest are content partners with UrbanCincy.

If you would like to have your thoughts and opinions published on UrbanCincy, simply contact us at editors@urbancincy.com.

Downtown Signal Study Stuck in Political Traffic

Every weekday tens of thousands of commuters in downtown Cincinnati struggle in traffic to get onto the highway and back to their homes in other neighborhoods or the suburbs. However, City Hall is stalling on taking advantage of a unique opportunity to capitalize on funds to study and re-time the traffic signals to benefit all road users downtown.

The last time the traffic patterns of the city’s downtown Central Business District were studied was in the mid 1990’s. Back then the city had about 80,000 workers (a New York Times article puts the number at 82,000 in 1991) which is about 17,000 more than the most recent Downtown Cincinnati Inc. count of 65,000.

There are plenty of other things that have happened in downtown Cincinnati since the last traffic signal study, such as the reconfiguration and realignment of Fort Washington Way, the building of the Banks development, an increase of over 10,000 residents and of course the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar.

A traffic study and signal improvements would benefit all modes of transportation downtown

The funds for the study would come from the Cincinnati Streetcar Contingency Fund, basically funds left over from the construction and startup of the system. The study would not only allow the city’s Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE) to conduct the study but also would fund much needed upgrades to signals across downtown.

This would allow for the city to implement a more robust and flexible traffic timing scheme beyond the archaic three phase programming of the current signal system which is only programmed for rush hour, non-rush hour and weekend traffic patterns.

In October, City Council voted to approve a motion to start the traffic study.  Since then, however, progress has been stalled for unknown reasons.  The study was discussed again in council chambers this week as Council members probed Metro and City Administration on streetcar operations.

Streetcar supporters are quick to blame the city leadership on stalling to create a narrative that the streetcar is a failure. And the response to that, to blame Transdev, the company that operates the streetcar, should not go unheeded. However; the city is stalling on a golden opportunity to modernize and coordinate downtown traffic for the 21st Century.

This is a project that would fit perfectly into the data driven decision-making vision this administration values. And maybe we will all benefit from time saved being stuck in traffic whether we are drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, bus commuters or even streetcar riders.

COMMENTARY: “Starchitecture” Is Not The Enemy Of Urbanism

There has been an unfortunate trend in some urbanist circles to blame architects — or at least so-called “starchitects” in particular — for all of the world’s problems, to the point where it has almost become a trope. The latest example is a recent piece by the Project for Public Spaces titled “Let’s Stop Letting Starchitects Ruin College Campuses“. In the article, the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architecture Program is singled out as a cause of rising tuition:

One of the boldest examples comes from the University of Cincinnati, which has enlisted a “murderers’ row” of architects to redesign their campus, including Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Thom Mayne. This adds up to a lot of shiny new buildings, including the crown jewel – Mr. Mayne’s exorbitant $112.9 million Campus Recreation Center, which opened in 2006.

The article follows a familiar script: cherry-pick a recent project by some notable architect and use its shortcomings, real or imaginary, as a cudgel to disparage an entire profession. Bonus points are given if the notable building in question has some quality control issues such as a leaky roof (because bland, anonymous buildings never leak and contractors never make mistakes) or if its architect has a particularly strong personality and is prone to making provocative public statements. Then sprinkle in some colorful language like “murderers’ row” to score rhetorical points.

A couple of important points to highlight before I continue:

First, I’m on the same page with the New Urbanists at least 90% of the time, so consider this a lovers’ quarrel. Walkable neighborhoods, complete streets, form-based zoning, effective public transit, eyes on the street, historic preservation, some vaguely-defined sense of place? Sign me up; I’m all for it. You’ll find that most architects strongly support such things. In fact, the Project for Public Spaces has its roots in the work of William H. Whyte, a high priest of healthy urbanism and mentor to Jane Jacobs. Whyte’s book City: Rediscovering the Center has probably had more influence on my thinking about architecture and urbanism than any other single book.

Secondly, as somebody who recently finished grad school at UC with well over six figures in student loan debt, I’m certainly not unsympathetic to the state of higher education in America these days. My parents bought their first house for less money than I’m paying for my education, and I’ll be paying for it until I’m almost at retirement age. The issue is very personal for me, and I’ll be the first to agree that higher ed is in crisis, professors are underpaid and exploited, and that quality is suffering.

But this anger toward signature architecture is severely misdirected.

Students at nearly every university are being exploited by exorbitant tuition and declining quality of education, so to blame the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architecture Program for such problems is more than a bit disingenuous. Drexel University in Philadelphia has a rundown campus consisting mostly of bland, 1950s-era buildings, and you can be certain their students are feeling the same pressures as those at UC.

Ironically, the Project for Public Spaces article has nothing but praise for Harvard, an elite private university with a $36.4 billion endowment and an acceptance rate of less than 6%, where undergraduate tuition exceeds $40,000 per year. Perhaps the author feels that a humble public university in some flyover state is getting a little too aspirational by hiring world-renown architects for its campus.

Instead of blaming rising tuition costs on architects who happen to be good at what they do, we should consider blaming bloated administrative expenses, skyrocketing salaries for university officers, and a dysfunctional financial aid system that pumps unlimited free money into university coffers while forcing graduates into decades of indentured servitude.

More broadly, it’s time to permanently retire the term “starchitect” and its variants. Within some New Urbanist circles, the word “starchitect” has become a pejorative for any architect with above-average design talent, as an insult to an entire profession lobbed by people who lack the inclination to do any research into what it actually means to be an architect. The term reflects lazy thinking, and reeks of the same anti-intellectualism of those who blithely dismiss the work of climate scientists or look at a Jackson Pollack painting and scoff, “my preschooler child could’ve painted that.”

As with the debate over the Cincinnati Streetcar, the arguments are more ideological than about the merits of any specific project. We live in a time where the entire concept of professional expertise is under fierce attack by faux-populists, usually (but not exclusively) on the right wing of the political spectrum. Universities are seen merely as trade schools, and architecture that dares to express any ideals above pure utility is immediately suspect. As the great George Carlin observed, the people in charge of our discourse only want “obedient workers ­– people who are just smart enough to run the machines” but not smart enough to question why their standard of living keeps declining. An unusual-looking building serves as a handy scapegoat while real problems behind the scenes are ignored.

Kriston Capps wrote an article in CityLab titled “In Defense of Starchitects” that nicely articulates conservative hatred toward signature architecture in the public realm:

Important architecture tends to reflect a popular mandate. High design leans liberal, as it were: Museums, libraries, university buildings, performance halls, train stations, government centers, and so on usually serve the public good (often with public funding). So a whole lot of fine architecture is anathema to movement conservatism, programmatically. Not everything: Some of the finest buildings in the world are private projects driven by corporate ambition. And conservatives are invested in who and what gets memorialized and how.

This framework helps to explain why conservative critics love to hate the “starchitect.” It’s shorthand, a way of sorting the building arts into two categories—useful architecture that conservatives should approve and wasteful architecture that conservatives should disdain—without doing any of the real and difficult work of judging design.

Starchitect Alpha: Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

Starchitect Alpha: Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

Frank Gehry seems to be the starchitect bogeyman du jour, but Thom Mayne, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Santiago Calatrava have also occupied that role at various times. To be sure, many architects have colorful personalities and distinctive bodies of work that make for entertaining gossip around the water cooler, but they are hardly representative of the profession in general.

The caricature of the architect as egomaniacal artiste can perhaps be traced back to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, based on a sociopathic architect who blows up his own project rather than see it compromised. Roark’s character was loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright, certainly known for his healthy ego and unique design sensibility. But as with most anything else conjured up by Ayn Rand, Howard Roark has little basis in reality. To his credit, Frank Lloyd Wright was so offended by Howard Roark that he disavowed any connection to Rand’s character, but the stereotype has stuck.

A few celebrity architects embrace the stereotype: Some are notorious for swooping into the studio and angrily berating a subordinate and scribbling some design ideas onto tracing paper before dashing off to a cocktail reception, leaving a room full of unpaid interns to furiously work all night to turn the scribbles into a feasible design concept. Unfortunately, sound business practices are rarely part of the curriculum in architecture school. But such models of practice are a minuscule fraction of the profession, and they’re a rapidly dying breed.

The architects who designed the new buildings on the UC campus represent an incredibly wide variety of personalities and design approaches. Some of them are arguably more successful than others (the problems with Peter Eisenman’s DAAP complex are well known), but to lump them all into one homogenous bogeyman belies a staggering ignorance about the profession. This isn’t to say that architects and their projects are above criticism, but critics should at least make the effort to do some basic research about what they’re critiquing if they want to be taken seriously.

Pop quiz: Without using Google to look it up, name the starchitect who designed the Steger Student Life Center at UC. Take your time to think about it if you need to.

Steger Center

It’s a trick question. The Steger Center wasn’t designed by a solitary “starchitect”; its design was a collaborative effort between a diverse project team at Moore Ruble Yudell in California, Cincinnati-based Glaserworks, the university, and a small army of engineers and consultants representing a multitude of disciplines. Such a collaborative design process isn’t specific to the Steger Center; it is a necessary part of the process of designing any building larger than a cabin in the woods.

I was a co-op at Moore Ruble Yudell for most of 2012, and I’ve also worked for STUDIOS Architecture, who designed the CARE/Crawley building on the east campus. The people at these firms are my friends and colleagues, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have that experience on my resume. When I read angry screeds about egomaniacal “starchitects” I certainly don’t recognize my colleagues in those descriptions, and I question whether the author has ever been inside an architecture office.

During my co-op at Moore Ruble Yudell, I was on the project team for a new student center at the University of California at Berkeley, a project with many similarities to the Steger Center. The Berkeley project was initiated by the student government to replace a decrepit facility that was in danger of failure in a major earthquake. The student council president was an indispensable member of the project team, and we took great pains to ensure that we were designing in the best interests of current and future students along with numerous other stakeholders. To read articles from authors like the Project for Pubic Spaces, though, one would be misled into thinking this was a vanity project for the university administration, and that the student body should’ve been content with a rundown building with serious seismic issues.

Eshleman Hall, University of California at Berkeley by Moore Ruble Yudell. (photo: Bruce Damonte / Architectural Record)

Eshleman Hall, University of California at Berkeley by Moore Ruble Yudell. (photo: Bruce Damonte / Architectural Record)

The hostility toward architects seems particularly acute here in Cincinnati, where so much of the city’s design culture is wrapped up in consumer branding and merchandising. Within that milieu, marketability is king and the shelf life of any design concept is measured in months before the hot new trend comes along; architects at several local firms are merely seen as the technicians who pump out the permit drawings. Too much local design work seems to be about following market trends rather than transcending them.

The shelf life of architecture is measured in decades if not centuries, and its value isn’t something that can always be quantified on a spreadsheet or market report. Designing a major academic building for a world-class university is a far more consequential undertaking than cranking out drawings for the rubber dog shit display at a few dozen Spencer Gifts locations around the country. Architects don’t have customers; we have clients, and we must satisfy multiple stakeholders with often-conflicting objectives. The client who hires the architect isn’t always the end user who occupies the building, and architects also have a legal obligation to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the general public.

For any given building, it may very well alternate between being fashionable and outdated several times over its lifespan. Yesterday’s signature building becomes today’s white elephant, which becomes tomorrow’s cherished landmark. Most of the buildings on UC’s uptown campus will be the landmarks that preservationists fight to save in a few decades. A “signature” building that lasts a century, even if the initial cost per square foot is double that of a conventional building, is far more cost-effective and sustainable than cheaply-built schlock that gets torn down and dumped into a landfill after less than 50 years. The landmarks we love so much today were often derided for being out of character when they were built, but they became landmarks because they’re exceptional. To be exceptional, by definition, is to stand out from the crowd.

Cincinnati has a cornucopia of historic architecture that, while worth preserving and celebrating, often prevents us from acknowledging that contemporary architecture can also be beautiful and of lasting quality. New buildings should always respond to their context, but too often this mandate gets interpreted in a knee-jerk manner to mean that architecture’s highest calling is to inoffensively “blend in” with its context like a chameleon, rather than standing out in a meaningful way. Instead of raising the bar, too many new buildings aim for the lowest common denominator. We end up with the architectural equivalent of a bowl of lukewarm vanilla pudding, to be consumed in a plain beige room while some smooth jazz plays softly in the background. And then people wonder why recent buildings are so uninspiring.

Time for another pop quiz. Identify the starchitect-designed structure in the photo below:

Sprawl

Again, it’s a trick question. As I mentioned in a recent column in this space, blaming “starchitects” for the lousy quality of our built environment is like blaming Kraftwerk for being too esoteric while Nickelback is at the top of the charts. While distinctive buildings such as those at UC garner the vast majority of media attention, we ignore the dreck that surrounds us in our daily lives: cheaply-built strip malls, McMansions, gas stations, and other architectural detritus where short-term profit is the only design principle. “Starchitects” didn’t design that or even influence it, but like a pervasive foul odor that we’ve grown accustomed to, we only take notice when somebody opens a window to let in some fresh air. The stench has become the new normal, and we lash out at the fresh air because it comes as a shock to our senses.

None of this is to imply that architects themselves should be let off the hook. The profession needs to do a much better job of opening its doors to women, people of color, and others who have traditionally been marginalized from the design process. We can’t claim to be meeting society’s needs when our profession is about as demographically diverse as a country club and “traditional” architecture is assumed, by default, to mean some variant of Western neo-classicism.

Architects also need to get their hands dirty in the political process. Our most famous architect-statesman is considered a founding father, but who have we elected lately? Over the past few decades, the architectural profession has incrementally surrendered its leadership role in creating the built environment and found itself increasingly marginalized.

Look up a donor list for any political campaign, and there’s good chance you’ll find few, if any, architects on it. Developers and contractors, however, donate in spades to ensure that laws get written in their favor. Here in Cincinnati, five of Mayor John Cranley’s top ten donors represented real estate interests in 2013, but not a single architect or architectural practice.

At the national level, the American Institute of Architects typically spends less than a million dollars on lobbying each year. By comparison, the National Association of Home Builders spends more than three times as much, and the automotive and fossil fuel industries have now been dictating our transportation policy for the better part of a century. How well has that been working out for us?

Rory Stott gets to the heart of the problem in a 2013 article for ArchDaily, describing it as a crisis of confidence within the profession:

The view of Outram and Hosey is directed against a particular sub-section of architects: on the one hand, the group we may once have referred to as “starchitects”, or, more accurately, big-name designers who are often brought in to provide an ‘icon’, or even to simply prove beyond a doubt that the entity commissioning the building “cares about good design”. On the other hand are large and usually relatively anonymous practices who are adept at satisfying the wishes of their commercial clients – the practices who make a mantra of high proportions of rentable space and low costs of construction. 

However, not all architects fit into these two groups – or at the very least many do their utmost to avoid falling into the trap – and it is these unfortunate individuals that are suffering this crisis of confidence. They are the humanists who refuse to present their work as a pure game of finance, and do not wish to reduce it to some arbitrary notion of culture for its own sake. 

They are the ones that have been sucked into a vicious chicken-and-egg cycle, where a losing struggle to maintain relevance leads to a crisis of confidence, which leads to meek design solutions, which leads to a further reduction in relevance. Which crisis came first: confidence or relevance? How did this cycle begin?

The future of the architectural profession — and along with it, the future of our built environment — doesn’t lie with design divas like Zaha and Gehry. They are yesterday’s news. Nor, we hope, does the future lie with the nameless technocrats who pump out an endless torrent of disposable schlock that will be obsolete and deteriorating before the paint has even dried. Down that path there is no future. We are facing a planetary crisis in which the built environment plays a critical role, and if architects are going to take a leadership role in solving it, that leadership must be provided by the “missing middle” of the profession that designs thoughtful, humanistic, and sustainable architecture.

Ballard Public Library by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (photo: Dennis Bratland / Wikimedia Commons)

Ballard Public Library by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (photo: Dennis Bratland / Wikimedia Commons)

Some New Urbanist critics are convinced that architecture students are brainwashed into worshiping at the feet of egomaniacal superstar architects, but speaking from my own experience at DAAP, nothing could be further from the truth. We certainly studied the superstars; in one class we spent several days picking apart Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library. But our studies were far from uncritical; we closely looked at those elements of the project that were successful along with those that were less successful. And we compared it with the less flashy but no less important Ballard Public Library by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, also in Seattle. I can’t speak for all architecture students everywhere, but based on the interest each project garnered among my classmates, the future of architecture is best exemplified by the latter project, not the former.

Rory Stott concludes:

Finally, the most important part of the process is to learn. Architects must learn about power and how it manifests itself in their design. They must learn how to wield power responsibly. This will be difficult; Foucault built an entire career around an attempt to understand power, so it’s safe to say architects will not be able to pick all this up overnight.

Fortunately, however, there is a precedent for architects to use as a guide in this endeavor: for a brief period around the 1960s, a certain type of architect thrived who had all the confidence of the modernists, but a much greater respect for the people they served, and a much greater understanding of humanist principles. Figures like Aldo van EyckHerman HertzbergerAldo RossiCarlo Scarpa and Bertrand Goldberg should be the prototypes on which the next generation of architects model themselves, as they break free from this crisis and embrace a new (and hopefully improved) era of conscientious yet confident architecture.

Fortunately, humanistic firms like Moore Ruble Yudell and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson who follow these precedents have largely supplanted the divas at the top of the architectural pecking order. It has been a decade since the AIA Firm Award, the profession’s highest honor for an architectural practice in the United States, has gone to a firm headed by somebody who could arguably be described as a “starchitect”. Recent recipients of the award include Kieran Timberlake in Philadelphia, the Miller Hull Partnership and Olson Kundig in Seattle, and Lake Flato in San Antonio. None of these firms are household names in the same way as Michael Graves or Frank Gehry, but these firms and others like them represent the next generation of “conscientious yet confident” architecture that Stott describes.

It’s time for humanistic architects to get their swagger back, and it’s time for armchair critics within the urbanist community to start paying attention, or else both parties risk being left behind in a rapidly-changing world.