Tuesday, May 6, 2003

New CAC a piece of the puzzle

It's just a building, I am thinking as I listen to Charles Desmarais describe the new Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art. It is after, after all, just bricks and mortar.

Or, in this case, glass, metal and concrete.

The director and I are standing in the lobby, at the corner of Walnut and Sixth streets, downtown. Charles is crisp in a beautifully tailored suit. I am sweating mightily under a borrowed hard hat.

"The space will announce itself as the beginning of an experience, a conversation with the artwork," he says.

The construction crews ignore us. They do not have time for chitchat or eavesdropping. The center is supposed to open for customers May 31.

Every time I interrupt them to ask about the job, they say something like, "interesting" or "challenging," probably code for difficult or strange.

Dizzying diagonals

Newsweek calls it "an edifice of dizzying diagonals." A drywaller says it "throws your eyeballs off." But he shows me proudly how he has made the "weird cuts" work. Charles particularly admires the "energy" of 30,000-pound, welded steel steps.

We pass a metallic carcass, awaiting installation. Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's enormous titanium Cloud No. 1 is the sort of piece that would have been impossible in the old CAC space, which is 10,000 square feet, compared with the soaring five-story, 87,000-square-foot building designed by Zaha Hadid.

Charles courteously spells the artist's name for me, unsurprised that I have had to ask.

I am not a regular to exhibits in the old quarters in the Mercantile Building.

In truth, I have been there only slightly more often than I have attended a baseball game, where someone surely would have had to spell out the name of the starting pitcher for me.

Nonetheless, I am proprietary.

These institutions belong to me, no matter who owns them technically.

Baseball and music and art, not to mention beer and chili, are essential ingredients to our distinguished and, just now, battered reputation.

Like its neighbor, the Aronoff Center, the new Center for Contemporary Art gives visitors a new reason to conquer their suspicion of a center city no longer dominated by department stores, to overcome their distaste for the unfamiliar, to ignore their fondness for surface parking.

It's proof that the urban experience is something beyond Bed, Bath and Beyond.

It's a lure and a signal of diversity in a city not famous for either.

Designed by an Iraqi architect, named for Jewish patrons, the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art joins Music Hall, the Taft, the Mercantile Library and the Cincinnati Art Museum, which have been part of a continuing "conversation" for more than 100 years.

Even those who never step inside to decode the artistic statement of a metallic cloud or an angled staircase surely understand the message of this newest addition to Cincinnati's urban landscape.

It's a sign that we have not given up.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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