While the construction activities taking place in Over-the-Rhine and Downtown often grab the most headlines, it is actually the city’s uptown neighborhoods where some of the most dramatic construction progress is taking place.
The $15 million, 115-room Fairfield Inn & Suites is now topped out and filling in the remaining piece of the U Square at The Loop block along W. McMillan Street. Once this portion of the development is complete, attention will turn to developing the planned office building along Jefferson Avenue in between W. McMillan Street and Calhoun Street.
Just down the street from the hotel project site is The Verge – 178-unit residential development – which is also now topped out. This project has stirred controversy due to its demolition of two historic structures that were once on the site. In addition to that, the project is replacing a large surface parking lot and several small homes.
In Corryville, the finishing touches are being put on the $30 million, 147-unit VP3 residential development that, like The Verge, is targeting students studying at the University of Cincinnati. Likewise, the $25 million 101 E. Corry project is bringing an additional 123 apartments and eight townhomes to the historic neighborhood.
Nearby, and on the border of Clifton Heights and Corryville, is the University Plaza site, which has now been fully demolished of its previous structures. While the new development footprint will not differ significantly from what was there before, a new Walgreens is already nearing completion, and a new Kroger grocery store, twice the size of the previous store, will also soon begin construction as part of a $24 million redevelopment effort.
Finally, the $17 million, 117-unit Gaslight Manor residential development in Clifton is on-pace to be completed later this year. This project is replacing a less dense apartment complex that previously occupied the hilly site immediately northwest of Good Samaritan Hospital.
EDITORIAL NOTE: All 17 photographs were taken by Eric Anspach in February 2016.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 Eyck, Herman Hertzberger, Aldo Rossi, Carlo 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.
Changes adopted in the 2015 International Building Code (IBC), combined with advances in wood technology, may soon allow for taller midrise buildings at lower costs than what has previously been possible.
The importance of the changes to the IBC should not be overlooked, since it serves as a model building code throughout most of the United States. This means that states and local jurisdictions who lack the expertise to develop their own building code typically adopt a code written by an independent standards organization such as the International Code Council.
In fact, all 50 states and the federal government now use variations of the IBC, with the exception of Chicago which remains as the only major city in the United States with its own proprietary building code.
Under current codes, and with typical construction technology, the upper limit for a wood-frame building is five stories atop a one-story steel or concrete “podium” base that may include retail spaces, parking and/or other functions – essentially treating the two components of the building as two independent structures. What the revised IBC does is allow for the height of this podium base to be increased to more than one story, and recognizes the use of newer technologies such as cross-laminated timber in building construction.
This update does not yet apply to projects in Ohio, as the state has not yet adopted the 2015 version of the IBC. Also, height limits set by the IBC are distinct from those set by local zoning codes. In the case of a conflict between the provisions of two or more applicable codes, the more stringent provisions typically apply.
Such “One-Plus-Five” buildings are becoming increasingly common in American cities as neighborhoods within urban cores once again become desirable places to live. Local examples include U-Square at The Loop in Clifton Heights and the Gantry Apartments in Northside, both designed by Cincinnati-based CR Architecture + Design.
This building type and the forthcoming code changes offer a number of opportunities and challenges for urban neighborhoods.
The code changes are potentially good news for both the environment and affordable housing advocates. Wood construction, when it utilizes sustainable sources, is far less damaging to the environment than steel or concrete construction. It is also far less expensive, allowing new housing to be built and sold at a lower price point than would otherwise be possible.
The biggest concerns with multifamily wood-frame construction typically involve fire safety and noise transmission. Fire sprinkler systems are required throughout such projects; and while no fire protection system will ever be completely fail-safe, sprinklers prevent small fires from becoming large fires. In addition to the sprinklers, fire-rated assemblies prevent a fire from spreading from one portion of the structure to another. For example, the two-hour rated wall typically required between apartments usually consists of two layers of 5/8″ drywall on each side of 2×4 studs.
These and other measures also help prevent sound transmission between apartments.
As anybody who has lived in a large apartment building can attest, noisy neighbors can be a constant source of frustration and often form the bulk of complaints to the landlord. With wood-frame construction, the addition of resilient channels between the finish ceiling and the joists above, as well as a thin layer of concrete between the sub-floor and finish floor, can drastically reduce sound transmission.
None of this is intended as a commentary on the architectural merit of such projects, nor their appropriateness in particular neighborhoods. Building codes such as the IBC are almost solely concerned with matters of life safety and accessibility, while matters regarding density and appropriateness for a particular neighborhood would fall under the purview of local zoning codes.
As for architectural merit, such matters are up to the developer, the architect, and the community. Good taste isn’t something that can be dictated by statute.
Between two of Over-the-Rhine’s most treasured attractions is a Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC) proposal currently on hold. As a result, the non-profit development corporation will either need to obtain a new funding source or the project will need to be “a little more within the scale of the existing market.”
The current proposal for the mixed-use project at Fifteenth and Race includes over 300 parking spaces, 57 residential units, and almost 22,000 square feet of commercial space. With the project now on hold, now is the time to step back and critically evaluate a major development in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.
The unnamed development sits primarily along Fifteenth Street, between Pleasant and Race Streets, and would occupy almost an entire city block with a massive parking garage and what can otherwise be described as a lackluster design. Think Mercer Commons 2.0.
Stand at the northern edge of Washington Park and look down Pleasant Street. If your eyes are better than mine, you’ll see Findlay Market. If you’d like to walk there, it is only a leisurely five to ten minute stroll. This proposed development’s car-centric design places a parking garage exit on Fifteenth Street, and would force vehicular traffic onto one of Over-the-Rhine’s most important pedestrian axes.
Additionally, the garage packs in 200 more vehicles than is mandated by law, forces the partial demolition of two historic structures, and limits the available commercial and residential space sandwiched between the phase one Cincinnati Streetcar route. If the streetcar should increase property value as predicted, a parking garage may not be the best use of land for such a prominent location along the line.
As is currently designed, the buildings that would wrap the garage present themselves as a homogeneous wall. This character contrasts heavily with the existing fabric that presents gaps between buildings, portals to interior courtyards, and strong visual relief. While the roof line makes an attempt at creating rhythm in concert with windows, its variation is not enough to mask that it is one big building.
These characteristics detract from the pedestrian scale, though the new construction hints at these qualities with balconies, recessed entries, and slightly offset building faces. These expressions are more akin to developments at The Banks and U Square at The Loop, and are a cheap imitation of Over-the-Rhine’s authenticity.
Along Pleasant Street, the Fifteenth and Race townhomes are compressed by the large, central parking garage. The private walk at the townhomes’ rear is noted as a ‘garden space’ but these spaces are approximately 10 feet wide and will be shadowed by a three-and-a-half-story parking garage. Along the street, the crosses and boxes highlighting the townhomes’ windows are wholly contemporary, which are expressions out of place on a building that is neither modern nor traditional; it is non-committal.
It should be noted that an entire block design is a difficult task in Over-the-Rhine because its designation as a historic district stems from the collection of smaller individual buildings built over time. Furthermore, the neighborhood’s historic character, established before the invention of the automobile, does not easily accommodate cars.
However, there will be a need for more parking, and the Over-the-Rhine Comprehensive Plan recognizes this, but states that new parking should be done “without impacting the urban fabric or historic character of the neighborhood.”
Individually rehabbed buildings do not typically have the potential to alter a neighborhood’s character, but when large-scale development is proposed, community members should have a place at the table.
When asked about developers engaging community stakeholders, Steve Hampton, Executive Director of the Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation, says, “If there’s one place for community outreach it is in large-scale development because of the unique architecture, historic neighborhood, and diversity of people in Over-the-Rhine.”
In the case of this Fifteenth and Race development, the first stages of community engagement were initiated by Over-the-Rhine Community Housing (OTRCH) and Schickel Design, who completed the Pleasant Street Vision Study (PSVS) in 2013.
While the proposed development incorporates all of the individual elements from the PSVS, it is not in the spirit of the pedestrian-focused Pleasant Street Vision Study and on a very different scale. The size and location of the parking garage is a major difference between the 3CDC proposal and the PSVS, and Mary Rivers, of OTRCH, noted that this is a big issue for many people.
Of course there is a gap between a vision study that outlines a community’s desires or needs, and the market forces that drive a real development, but there are various ways a community should be engaged in a project of this scale.
While OTRCH held focus groups prior to beginning the award-winning City Home project one block south along Pleasant Street, Rivers said that 3CDC did not engage OTRCH until after the current plans had been unveiled.
Rivers said, “We asked a diversity of people, ‘What do you like in Over-the-Rhine? What are you looking for in a home?’ Their answers ultimately influenced the design.” This type of engagement is not easy; and Rivers acknowledged that the best way to engage a community is on big issues not the details.
3CDC needs to step up, engage community stakeholders, and propose a design that is more respectful to Over-the-Rhine’s residents, and its unique architectural and urban form.