At Just 14, Iconic Building Raises Preservation Issues

U. of Cincinnati landmark highlights concerns with untested construction techniques

Chronicle photograph by Lawrence Biemiller

To save $2-million, the U. of Cincinnati used an unproven cladding on Peter Eisenman's 1996 Aronoff Center. Now its exterior will be replaced.
October 10, 2010

The culprit is the usual one­—water. But almost everything else about the University of Cincinnati's coming renovation of its Aronoff Center for Design and Art is surprising, from the fractured, pastel-hued building itself to the fractious internal debate over whether to preserve its original exterior colors or reimagine them for a new generation of students.

What's especially surprising is that the building, which links three others into a home for the university's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, is only 14 years old—young for a renovation, even younger for a preservation project. It was designed by Peter Eisenman, who teaches architecture at Yale University when he's not designing eye-opening but sometimes troublesome buildings. And it was the first of an impressive series of structures by marquee architects that have helped the University of Cincinnati generate a measure of excitement, and attract a level of attention, that it never enjoyed when its campus was unremarkable and it was known as a public institution catering to commuters.

Now the building also seems destined to serve as a cautionary tale for colleges everywhere. Along with Frank Lloyd Wright's Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College and Frank Gehry's monumental Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—and Mr. Eisenman's own Wexner Center at Ohio State University, which closed for a three-year renovation just 13 years after it was completed—the Aronoff Center's problems warn colleges to ask whether the design benefits of daring, untested construction techniques justify the potential maintenance headaches.

The problem here is that the building, an icon of architecture's "deconstructionist" movement, is deconstructing itself—literally coming apart at the seams because moisture has penetrated the "exterior insulating finishing system," as it's called, that makes up much of the angled facade. Now its dull, weather-stained wall panels are peeling away from windows and rooflines, and boils and rot mar the edges of some walls in busy locations. Attempts to correct the moisture problem by adding weep holes to drain away water didn't help. Nor did students, some of whom took to tossing rocks at the walls to see if the rocks would stick.

Other early applications of the same finishing system, which consists of layers of foam insulation and fiberglass mesh beneath a top coat applied in different textures and colors, have caused similar problems for numerous buildings, from houses to office towers, although not every structure that uses the system has had problems. Mary Beth McGrew, Cincinnati's university architect since 2006, says the system was chosen for the Aronoff Center because it was about $2-million cheaper than the colored tiles Mr. Eisenman originally envisioned. But selecting an unproven technology for a structure as complex as this one was not, in retrospect, a good idea, Ms. McGrew says.

"If we did this today, we could do the finishing system exactly right," she says. "We looked at just repairing it—that's where we started. That would cost $2.5-million to $3-million." But even with the repairs, "it wouldn't fit in with how we maintain buildings at universities—every few years we'd be recoating it." Colleges are much more accustomed to caring for traditional brick and stone buildings, whose exteriors typically need a little attention every 25 to 50 years.

Ruling out a simple repair, though, left the university to choose among other options. And doing that led some people, among them Ms. McGrew, to ask a couple of questions that come up regularly on campuses: "Does it change or stay the same? And, most important, why?"

'I'll Come Work With You'

The Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning complex, which everyone here calls simply "DAAP," includes buildings from 1952 and 1956 that are elegant brick-and-glass essays in the International style. A third component is a concrete-columned structure from 1972. In 1987 the university began planning to bring together all of the college's programs, which were then scattered across the campus, so an addition that united the three existing buildings was in order. Jay Chatterjee, then the college's dean, talked university and state officials into letting him invite a roster of big-name architects to compete for the project, rather than asking only Ohio firms, as the institution had always done in the past.

Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and Cesar Pelli were among those invited to make presentations. "All the other architects had slide shows of their work," says Mr. Chatterjee, now a retired professor. Mr. Eisenman, however, had little to show off—the Wexner Center, his first big commission, was still under construction. "Peter had a couple of houses," Mr. Chatterjee says. "Instead, he said, This is what I think architecture is about, this is what I'm about. If you like it, I'll come work with you." He got the job.

Design work started in 1989, and construction five years later, producing a building that was widely praised when it opened, in 1996. Mr. Eisenman drew his inspiration from the angles at which the three older buildings met, as well as from the site itself. He took those angles and spun them out, iteration by iteration, into the new building's broad interior spine, Mr. Chatterjee says, "then he let the topography twist and turn and torque that spine as it went downhill." The building's highlight is its interior, particularly the spine—a long, rising, shape-shifting open space that serves as corridor, stairway, and classroom. "Crit" sessions, in which students evaluate one another's work, take place on broad landings as other students and faculty members pass by, perhaps pausing to look at the work and listen to the discussion. Robert Probst, the college's current dean, calls the spine "our living room."

Mr. Eisenman carried his vocabulary of angles and iterations throughout the building. Inside and out, every surface is broken in some way that calls to mind the angles at which the original buildings meet. Ceiling panels are divided into jagged shards, and pieces of wall jut out or recede. Michael McInturf, who as a young architect served as Mr. Eisenman's on-site representative during planning and construction, remembers visiting when construction crews were framing the building. "It was awesome," says Mr. McInturf, who now teaches architecture here. "It was Piranesian."

Colors and textures add to the effect, subdividing planes that aren't otherwise broken up—expanses of facade or floor tile or carpet, even the treads of stairs. The colors include subtle ranges of pale blues and pale salmons. Mr. Probst says there are so many nuances in the shades and surface finishes that often "you're not sure what's a shadow and what's a darker tone." He remembers Mr. Eisenman's telling people, "Look, this is not color. This is all gray with a dab of red or blue."

'Eisenman in Black and White'

But it was over Mr. Eisenman's shades of gray that the renovation planning did some torquing of its own, turning into a debate about preservation and change. The architect had made it clear that he had no interest in revisiting the building's design, so it was up to Ms. McGrew to consider alternatives for the exterior repairs. She looked at replacing the finish-system panels with colored aluminum, and then wondered, idly at first, what the building would look like in unpainted aluminum, with different finishes on the panels imitating Mr. Eisenman's colored iterations. "Eisenman in black and white," she called the idea.

Ms. McGrew had sample aluminum panels put up, some painted and some just textured, on a structure that can be rotated so that different sides are in light or shade. There's no denying that the silvery finished-aluminum panels look sharp, no matter what you think of Mr. Eisenman's original colors.

"I was just enamored with the idea," Ms. McGrew says. And she figured that adding another iteration to the mix—this one an iteration in time—was in the spirit of Mr. Eisenman's original intent. After all, she says, "this building is about dislocation and not having continuity." Mr. McInturf, too, felt that the building could stand up to alteration.

But Mr. Chatterjee, an influential member of the university's design-review committee, thought differently. "Color is a very integral part of the building design—it's part of the iterative process of the design itself," he says. "I think the integrity and the intent of the building should be respected." Besides, he notes, the building has become an icon of contemporary design. The university takes the retired professor's opinion seriously, thanks to his reputation as the dean who pressed it to follow the Aronoff Center with buildings by Mr. Graves, Mr. Gehry, the late Mr. Gwathmey, Thom Mayne, Harry Cobb, and others. He is the dean who, as much as anyone, helped the university put itself on the map.

So when Ms. McGrew went to see Mr. Eisenman to discuss the exterior—"as a courtesy," she says—Mr. Chatterjee came along. So did Mr. McInturf. Mr. Eisenman sided with Mr. Chatterjee—the colors were crucial, he said, not for aesthetic reasons, but because they constituted an essential notational element of the design. That tipped the scales in favor of preservation­—and against the black-and-white scheme. Next summer, when repairs begin, the exterior's original colors will be restored.

The colored aluminum will cost about $6-million; the different finishes required for the Eisenman-in-black-and-white scheme would have cost a little more, Ms. McGrew says. The whole complex will be reroofed at the same time, and it may get some interior upgrades too—the carpet is worn, and the drywall has taken a beating in places where students use the building heavily.

Ms. McGrew is not bitter—you don't last long as a campus architect if you take it personally every time you don't get your own way. The color conversation was a good one to have in any case, she says. "It's worth bashing ourselves around a bit to discover why we preserve and why we change. 'Keep it the same' is a funny premise for a thinking school."

And there's a silvery lining, too: The discussion led her to consider a very practical question, one that other institutions should probably also be asking themselves: Does the university need a regular program for inspecting the high-tech facades that have gone up on the campus in recent years? Ms. McGrew thinks the answer is yes, and she's working on creating one.

"Our new buildings may not behave like our old buildings, where we wait a hundred years and then fix the brick," she says. "I'm not sure how long zinc will hang around."