Sunday, October 6, 1996
UC building: Permission to be fabulous

The Cincinnati Enquirer

You won't believe this, but the Cleveland Plain Dealer called us flashy.

Then the New York Times said we were a ''mecca for architects.'' Now I don't want to be unkind, but I can't remember the last time anybody from New York thought we were a mecca for anything besides corn and soybeans and the occasional bar of soap.

Architecture magazine said we were audacious. They like audacity. They put us on their cover.

Technically, none of them was talking about you and me personally or even Cincinnati in general. But I'm going to wallow in it anyway. This is the best press we've gotten that we haven't given to ourselves.

And they are talking about a building that belongs to us.

How's that again?

The new Aronoff Center of Design and Art at the University of Cincinnati officially opens next week, and it's the best thing that has happened to the city since Graeter's started making ice cream.

Of course, I didn't like the actual building very much. At first.

Designed by Peter Eisenman in after-dinner-mint shades of pale pink, green and blue, it meanders over its corner of Clifton Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive.

Or, as our friends at Architecture magazine put it:

''The sinusoidal line is not a regular curve with a fixed radius but an asymptotic curve without a center. Eisenman differentiates each box within the volume by torquing, phase-shifting, and . . .''

Does that clear things up for you?

I thought not.

I found a translator and guide. Michael McInturf is Mr. Eisenman's project architect, plus he took a teaching job at UC so he'll have to live with what he made.

On top of that, he looks just as he should. Dark shirt, buttoned to his chin, short hair and designer stubble. I guess he could tell by looking at me that my sinusoidals were not in alignment with my asymptotic curves. So he spoke English.

Chills. He says he gets chills seeing people in the building, and he can't wait to see how this building will affect the work of his students. He points to rooms for student activities, windows linking hallways with rooms with other rooms. He says the building is practical and will be a landmark.

That'd be nice. You'd like to think that we taxpayers will get a lot of years out of our $35 million. Mr. McInturf is too nice to huff, but I can tell he's a little tired of hearing about how expensive the building became. He says it cost $153 a square foot to build, which is ''very competitive.''

In a city where taxpayers have agreed to spend roughly a half-billion dollars on two stadiums, one of which will be open eight or 10 times a year, maybe it's a bargain. About 1,900 students will be using this building 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Coloring inside the lines

''We wanted the building to reflect the quality of the programs we have,'' says Jay Chatterjee, dean of the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. ''We felt we ought to press the discipline, to make it stretch and grow. If schools of architecture don't do that, then who will?''

I had a horrible flashback to a teacher I had who devoted her life to making sure we colored inside the lines. She smelled like mothballs and disapproved of everything we did. Absenteeism was rampant, and if we hadn't been 10 years old, we would have been alcoholic as well.

She did not inspire our best work.

There are, I am certain, easier buildings than this one. There are buildings that nobody doesn't like. There are buildings that were cheaper to build. There are buildings that went up faster. But those buildings will not be asked to do the things that this one will.

They will not be asked to be a signal to kids that it's OK to try something different, to take a chance on being great.

Students who see this building will know that they don't have to stay inside the lines. And the outside world will be reminded that our nice, careful, Midwestern city is not afraid to take a big, colorful chance.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.