Designing Cincinnati: How Does it Work?

June 23rd, 2015  |  Published in June 2015

We have heard a lot of talk (positive and negative) about local architecture in recent months. And I, for one, am glad that architecture has become a hot topic.  With the economic revival, construction has come back with a healthy mix of public and private projects.  We are encouraged by the ongoing renovation and reuse of historic buildings, especially in the urban core.  The rebirth of the splendid Enquirer building as a hotel is a significant achievement, which brings new life to Vine Street.

The most important ongoing construction project is The Banks, the reclamation of 195 acres on the Ohio riverfront.  Few cities have an opportunity of this magnitude, and our often contentious political entities have worked together to bring it about. The project, which began with the two new sports stadiums, has attracted national attention and awards.  This month, the Cincinnati Park Board has treated the public to a series of openings of attractions in Smale Riverfront Park, which borders the Banks mixed-use development.  The park, with its distinctive amenities, is indebted to the generosity of a handful of private donors.  This beautiful, family- friendly park will give pleasure to residents and visitors while serving as a visually impressive approach to the city.

While the Banks concept has been acclaimed, individual buildings have been panned by the City of Cincinnati Design Review Committee and informed observers.  The board is composed of lay people as well as design professionals.  This mix may provide developers with a preview of community response, so the board commands respect.

This week I had the privilege of speaking with two board members–Jim Fitzpatrick, FAIA, and Paul Muller, AIA.  Both are devoted community leaders as well as architects, and our community is fortunate to have this kind of citizen participation in such an important field of development. The review board is advisory only, but developers and designers take its opinions seriously.  There is no published criteria or standards, but architects know that new buildings are expected to fit their context.  They should be authentic and sit comfortably into Cincinnati’s built and natural environment.  As Fitzgerald observed, poorly organized designs, which have a jarring impact, and bland buildings do not get high marks.  The pair could not comment about works in review, but board meetings are public and it is known that the recent presentation for an AC hotel drew unfavorable comments from the board.  (That presentation, which was a local interpretation of a modern Spanish import by Marriott will come back to the board.) We hope they get it right. And that the GE building will prove worthy of its privileged site.

In this community of design enthusiasts, concern about the quality of individual projects in the Banks has been growing.  Phase One opened with The Current apartment complex, rental units designed to attract young professional singles or childless young adults, which is sited just west of Great American Ballpark.  The nondescript tower of one-and two-bedroom flats was built on a tight budget. The rooms are small and amenities are minimal.  The Design Review Board’s early reviews were not entirely favorable, and the designer made improvements, which produced a better building.

Cincinnati is rich in design talent, and I believe it is unfair to fault our hometown architects for less than satisfactory results.  Most often, it is the client, oftentimes an out-of-town developer, who insists on specifications that will lower construction costs.  One achieves savings by cutting back on size or the quality of materials. Developers and real estate agencies must respond to market pressures from urban buyers and renters who demand prime locations, adequate space, and low prices.  But Jim Fitzgerald, founding architect of FRCH Design Worldwide and a Design Review board member for more than a decade, disagrees that good architecture requires a big budget. He maintains that architects must use more creativity, and when they do, the results are often better than those designs made an unlimited budget.

Architect and board member Paul Muller claims that the principles for producing good architecture are known and can be readily applied.  Muller has a background in classical architecture and historic preservation.  He studied in Rome and now serves as director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association.  Paul sent me some research materials.

In urban architecture, the buildings and cityscapes that people find appealing reflect the principles of order and variety.  Humans are most comfortable in environments that appear organized,  well-proportioned, and harmonious.  Symmetry and balance are principles found in Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Neo-classical architecture.  (Disclosure: My earliest studies in art history were in Italian Renaissance, which became my first, true love, so I am drawn to historic and modern architecture, like Cincinnati Union Terminal, that is based on classical principles of balance, symmetry, and harmony.) And many other area residents feel the same way, judging from the public poll of favorite buildings, which the Cincinnati Business Courier ran last week.  In the Courier survey, Union Terminal was the runaway favorite.

Both Muller and Fitzgerald are pleased that most design teams incorporate suggestions from the board into their revisions.  But Jim warns that we cannot expect to achieve good architecture through design review, and he admits, “We have no great architecture at The Banks. Yet.”

In my visit to The Banks last week, I found much to admire, especially with the Smale Riverfront Park.  Some of the commercial buildings in the mixed-use development are a bit tacky and obviously not built to last. (The latter may be a plus.). But the place lives up to its mission as a development where one can work, live, and play.  There are ample eating and drinking joints, places to walk and run, and places to live.  Best of all are the spaces for play. And watching the laughing children running through the fountains and riding the menagerie on the  carrousel is pure joy for all.

Paul Muller gave good advice.  “Go at dusk,” he said, “when the lights start to come on.” He is right to call The Banks a success.  Ask the kids.  It is magical.


–Sue Ann Painter




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