The Contemporary Arts Center undertook a $1.1 million lobby renovation last year. Since reopening, the dramatic lobby space, originally designed by internationally acclaimed Zaha Hadid, has added the wonderful Collective Espresso as a cafe operator, and now also includes a kinetic light display along its famed seven-story “Urban Carpet” wall.
The installation, entitled Cincinnati Swing, was designed by Erwin Redl and includes 160 pendulums distributed in a diamond grid pattern following the 4×4′ grid of the concrete panels. The installation is complemented nicely by Matt Kotlarczyk’s cloud-like chandeliers. In combination with one another, they provide a truly unique lighting scheme for the lobby space, which also features the CAC’s museum shop.
Open from 7am to 6pm during the week, and 9am to 3pm on Saturday and Sunday, the lobby of the CAC is free and open to the public. Of course, it does cost money to purchase food and drink from Collective Espresso, along with items from the museum store.
The CAC is easily accessible from virtually every Metro bus via the Government Square Transit Center a block away, and is also within several blocks of numerous Red Bike stations.
On December 18, the University of Cincinnati announced that its new $100-135 million Carl H. Lindner College of Business facility would be designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in association with Cincinnati-based KZF Design. The final building is expected to be paid for through a combination of private donation and university funds.
This continues the university’s Signature Architecture Program, in which renown architecture firms from around the world are selected to design new buildings on campus, typically with a local firm serving as the architect of record. In such an arrangement, the design architect typically leads the project from concept through the design development stage, in which the overall design intent for the building is established.
The architect of record (also sometimes known as the executive architect) then carries the project through construction documents and construction administration, assuming responsibility for the technical aspects of the project. Each party typically has some involvement over the entire course of the design and construction process, but the architect of record remains legally responsible for the project, including compliance with applicable building codes.
This arrangement is common when the project is located outside the design architect’s own geographic region, and/or if the project type is outside the design architect’s usual area of expertise. For example, New York-based Architecture Research Office recently collaborated with Heery International, an Atlanta-based firm with a strong portfolio of athletic facilities, on the design of the new West Pavilion at Nippert Stadium.
Founded in 1959, Copenhagen-based Henning Larsen Architects has a long history of innovative design for educational facilities throughout the world, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Recent projects include Campus Kolding at the University of Southern Denmark, and the Copenhagen Business School in Porcelænshaven, Frederiksberg. Common to all of Henning Larsen’s projects are a strong emphasis on transparency, natural daylighting, and an environment that nurtures a spirit of open collaboration.
Cincinnati-based KZF Design was founded in 1956 and has become one of Cincinnati’s most venerable architecture firms. KZF has a well-established history of serving as architect of record on a number of notable projects at UC, including the Campus Recreation Center in association with Morphosis and the Engineering Research Center in association with Michael Graves.
KZF was also the architect of record on Zaha Hadid‘s Contemporary Arts Center in downtown Cincinnati, and was responsible for the re-cladding of the Aronoff Center at UC, home to the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.
To be built at the current site of the Myers Alumni Center and unused faculty club building, the planned 250,000- to 275,000-square-foot is anticipated to house most all of the facilities for students and faculty at the fast-growing college. Unclear at this point is the fate of the 1,601-space Campus Green Garage located immediately adjacent to the existing Lindner Hall, which is expected to be demolished once the new building is completed.
Should both be demolished, it would open up a vast space for potential construction for other uses – serving as a masterstroke of campus redevelopment that would provide much-needed classroom space, while also opening up UC’s main campus to Burnet Woods and ridding main campus of one of its most unsightly above-ground parking structures.
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.
During a press conference this past October, superstar architect Frank Gehry responded to criticism of his work by raising his middle finger to a Spanish journalist and saying, “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98% of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”
The Inescapable Art Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, described architecture as the inescapable art. “You don’t have to go to a play that the theater critic pans, a movie that the film critic hates or a restaurant where, according to the food critic’s taste buds, the chef can’t cook,” Kamin writes, but terrible reviews won’t make buildings disappear, and the public can be stuck with the consequences of bad design for decades. Architecture — good, bad, or mediocre — forms the setting in which we live out our lives and it affects us in profound ways whether we consciously realize it or not. Good design is more than just superficial window dressing; it’s the difference between Mac OS X and a Unix terminal prompt, and it’s the difference between a city that’s an attractive destination and a city that merely exists.
Cincinnati is blessed with a cornucopia of notable architecture that other cities in its league can only dream of having. In addition to the well-known favorites like Union Terminal, Carew Tower, and Music Hall, there is also a wide variety of contemporary architecture that has helped put Cincinnati back on the cultural map. In addition to the usual cast of flamboyant “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Zaha Hadid, Cincinnati is also home to projects by less flashy but no less talented firms like Moore Ruble Yudell, Architecture Research Office, and Gwathmey Seigel Kaufman. There are also homegrown firms such as FRCH, Glaserworks, and John Senhauser Architects creating notable projects in Cincinnati and beyond. When it comes to the quality of its built environment, Cincinnati punches far above its weight.
The sad irony, though, is that relatively little of what gets built today is actually designed by architects. Despite the resurgence of the urban cores of Cincinnati and other cities throughout the country, most new construction is still in the suburbs and exurbs, planned and designed by developers and retail chains according to carefully-honed formulas created to guarantee the greatest return on the dollar within the shortest period of time.
Suburban “McMansions” aren’t designed by architects to be lived in; they’re designed by developers to look good on realtor listings and be sold. Big-box retail stores, fast food outlets, and car dealerships are built from prototypes designed not to inspire or to even be pleasant, but to generate short-term profits with maximum efficiency. Some nameless architect may have stamped the construction documents somewhere along the process to ensure the structure meets applicable codes, but his or her influence on the end user experience was likely minimal at best. In the case of most single-family houses built by developers, an architect was not likely to have been involved at all.
False Choices This is no doubt the “98% of what gets built and designed today” that Gehry was referring to, but it has remained largely unmentioned while pundits squabble over the implications of his diatribe. Some commentators have chosen to blame celebrity architects such as him for the current state of our built environment, nostalgically harking back to some mythical past in which architecture was driven by the local vernacular. What they fail to mention is that, like it or not, badly-designed sprawl is the vernacular today, and it has gone global. Blaming a few starchitects for the quality of our built environment is like bashing Kraftwerk for being too esoteric while the latest Nickelback album is at the top of the charts.
That said, architects and architectural academics are often accused of being elitist and out of touch with reality, and in many cases the criticism is well-deserved. Too many architects have read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as the manifesto it was meant to be rather than as the cautionary tale it should have been. Architecture is a collaborative discipline above all else, and there is no room at the table for an ego the size of Howard Roark’s. Too often, the prestigious design awards and glossy magazine articles have been for projects built for sheer spectacle rather than for lasting quality. Spectacle is what sells magazines and generates fodder for discussion around the water cooler, but sometimes the most appropriate design solution is to do less designing. Being a conscientious architect means knowing when to make that call.
What’s missing from the discussion is the vast middle ground between avant-garde starchitecture and crowd-pleasing vernacular design, and the idea that architecture, above all else, should be a human experience, rather than an abstract object to behold or a mere commodity to the bought and sold. It’s not a question of modernism versus traditionalism or suburban versus urban; it’s a question of bad versus good.
Healthy cities need an attractive mix of architecture; this mix includes high-profile starchitecture, anonymous background buildings, new and old, traditional and modernist, and everything in between. What matters is that what gets built is of consistently high design quality. A smattering of notable buildings within a context of ugly schlock is insufficient; what’s needed is a cohesive cityscape of well-designed buildings where the overall quality of the urban experience is greater than the sum of its architectural parts. To use a baseball analogy, one or two sluggers won’t save the season if the rest of the team is in a slump.
Good design doesn’t just happen; property owners and the general public need to realize its value, and commission talented architects who will deliver it. Samuel Hannaford didn’t leap out from behind a bush one night and create Music Hall by sheer force of will; Music Hall exists because the City of Cincinnati wanted a venue befitting its highest cultural aspirations, and they commissioned Hannaford to design it. Music Hall, while notable enough in its own right, also exists within the fabric of a historic neighborhood. Relatively few of the neighborhood’s Italianate row houses would be particularly notable as individual structures, but together they form the streetscape of Over-the-Rhine, one of the largest intact historic districts in the country. Music Hall and its surrounding neighborhood enhance and compliment each other in ways that would be impossible if either existed in isolation.
Engineering Value Cost considerations are often touted as an excuse for poor design, but this is a cop-out. It’s easy to clad a terrible building in exotic materials and pass it off as a notable work of architecture (see: numerous projects developed by Donald Trump), but a talented architect can creatively turn cost constraints into a brilliant design solution.
The iconic cross-braces on Chicago’s John Hancock Center meant being able to eliminate a third of the structural steel that would’ve otherwise been required for a building that tall. At a much smaller scale, Auburn University’s Rural Studio designs hand-built structures of sublime beauty for disadvantaged communities in rural Alabama. These structures, often created from recycled materials and found objects, cost pennies on the dollar compared to more typical construction.
When Washington, DC was planning its Metro system, the transit authority assumed the cheapest way to construct the underground stations was to give them straight vertical walls covered in tile, flat ceilings, and a forest of columns similar to what’s found on older subway systems. Their architect, Harry Weese, was able to demonstrate that a vaulted station shell made of waffle-slab concrete actually cost less to build than a more conventional design. This motif became the most celebrated design feature of the system, subtly recalling the coffered ceilings of the District’s neoclassical civic monuments but without reflexively copying them.
What is Good? All this talk of good architecture begs the question: What does it mean to be good? Is it something that can’t be defined, but we know it when we see it? Aaron Betsky, former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and now Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, recently penned an article that explicitly addresses this question:
I do not think there is one style or one approach that has all the answers. I am wary of what I think are pseudo-scientific approaches to measuring such things, though I am open to ways in which we can more clearly articulate and judge what is good and what works. However, instead of taking solace in formulas or a rote recitations of traditions, we should always ask the question what is appropriate, what is needed, what is possible, and what are our dreams and aspirations. We should build with what we know, for a reality, but also towards a better — again in a social, environmental, and aesthetic sense — reality.
Betsy concludes the article by saying, “Architecture should be neither weird nor boring, neither alien nor alienating, neither wasteful nor wanting in the qualities that make us human.”
To this we might add: In order to be good, architecture should be honest in its materiality and its place in history, and be responsive to its context. Wood should look like wood and not be painted to look like marble. A building built in 2015 shouldn’t attempt to look like a building built in 1895. A sentimental appeal to nostalgia is no excuse for faux-traditional buildings that cheapen their context with knee-jerk imitation, but a building designed for downtown Cincinnati should be sufficiently distinguishable from a building designed for a suburban office park in Southern California.
Good architecture should engage all the senses in a meaningful way, and acknowledge the web of meanings and experiences that we have come to associate with the built environment. Brick is more than just a cladding material; it imparts a sense of stability and permanence. Glass and stainless steel are associated with notions of high-tech precision. A fireplace is more than just a decorative feature in the living room; the sound and smell of burning firewood recalls fond memories of family camping trips, a bonfire on the beach during a church retreat, or a brisk fall evening with close friends on the patio at Neons. A door made of solid wood has a more substantial feel to the hand than a flimsy hollow door made of pressed paper, even if they both look the same at first glance. Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, these things matter.
Local Interest The discussion about the nature of our built environment has been happening in Cincinnati for quite some time; debates about the streetcar, gentrification, redeveloping the riverfront, form-based codes, and historic preservation all revolve around what kind of place Cincinnati wants to be. Is it a place where one merely goes to see a Reds game once or twice a year before getting back on the freeway to a house in the suburbs, or is it a place to live and work 24/7 throughout the year? Is it a dumping ground for the indigent, a playpen for the affluent, or home to a diverse mix of people and activities? All these issues are closely related to matters of design.
The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published an angry screed by Hyde Park architect Robert-Pascal Barone that sharply criticizes a number of recent projects. Although the article contained a few valid points, the overall tone read as a shrill rejection of anything built in the city after 1950, which undermined the possibility of a constructive dialogue.
This was an unfortunate missed opportunity, because it’s a dialogue that needs to happen. Belligerent naysaying does nothing to improve the city, but even the most successful projects are not exempt from intelligent critiques that offer lessons for future projects. Cincinnati has progressed beyond the point where new development for the sake of new development, no matter how ill-conceived, should get the red carpet treatment by default. The city deserves top-shelf design, and is now in a position to demand it.
Moving Forward There is reason to be optimistic that we are once again making good architecture a priority. For the past 20 years, the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architect Program has raised the profile of the university and has led to UC consistently appearing on lists of the world’s most beautiful college campuses. More importantly, it has greatly enhanced the quality of campus life and has had a snowball effect on other projects around town.
In recent years the city has stepped up its efforts to save and preserve the architectural landmarks that previous generations have built. The dilapidated Metropole has been beautifully reborn as the 21c Museum Hotel, Hamilton Country taxpayers recently approved a modest sales tax increase to restore Union Terminal, and the long-awaited restoration of Music Hall continues to gain support and funding.
Much work remains: the Terrace Plaza Hotel still sits vacant downtown, and despite the pace of redevelopment in Over-the-Rhine and other close-in neighborhoods, each year sees a number of vulnerable structures succumb to neglect or outright greed. The city needs to be more proactive about preserving its history, rather than merely reacting when a problem becomes a crisis.
Smaller cities like Cincinnati have a unique role to play in the design world, and offer advantages of access and affordability not found in the usual hot spots like New York and San Francisco. In a recent CityLab article titled Why Architects and Second-Tier Cities Need Each Other, Amanda Kolson Hurley notes:
New York, Boston, Chicago, and other major metros have a lot of construction activity, but also a lot of architects. It’s a competitive field made more so by the sheer number of talented firms in the same handful of cities. That contributes to the culture of stress and overwork that many architects bemoan, some of them — women in particular — even leaving the field in frustration. By contrast, an ambitious architecture practice can carve out a niche for itself in a second-tier city, where the scene is often dominated by “legacy” firms that play it safe.
Hurley goes on to highlight the example of Louisville-based De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop, which recently won an AIA Honor Award for their Wild Turkey visitor center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Neither Roberto De Leon nor Ross Primmer are Louisville natives; they met in architecture school at Harvard and made a business decision to open their practice in Louisville because, like Cincinnati, it was primed for growth. Cincinnati has the additional advantage of being home to one of the top architecture schools in the country, and many faculty members have their own small practices producing innovative design.
Cincinnati would do well to aggressively harness that local talent as well as put out the welcome mat for transplants from outside the region. Fairly or unfairly, Cincinnati has a reputation for being a conservative, insular city that is wary of outside ideas and talent. As such, it needs to work extra hard to put that stereotype out to pasture. Civic and corporate leaders should make a point to consider emerging architects for new projects and include them in discussions about the city’s future. For its part, the architectural community needs to resist its natural inclination to circle the wagons, and make an effort to engage the public and ensure their needs are being met when designing new projects.
Most importantly, the general public needs to demand a consistently high standard of design and hold its leaders accountable when opportunities are missed. Uncritical boosterism is often a veneer for complacency, which is a far more destructive force than vigorous debate. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked. Cincinnati has a rich history and enviable assets, but it cannot rest on its laurels. No city has ever made itself a prime destination by bragging about how magnificent it used to be.
Get Involved At the national level, the American Institute of Architects has launched an ambitious media campaign to highlight the role of architects in shaping our built environment, and by extension, the role of the built environment in shaping our lives. The campaign features web videos, television ads, and social media content under the hashtag #ilookup.
David Cole is a native of Fort Thomas, Kentucky with a strong interest in architecture, urban design, transit, and social justice. He earned his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, and is pursuing professional registration as an architect while working as a designer at the New York office of STUDIOS Architecture.