Not As You Like It: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s New Otto M. Budig Theater

October 29th, 2017  |  Published in October 2017

Exterior nighttime view shows entrance at Elm and 12th Streets for the new Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s The Otto M. Budig Theater (note structural angular beams behind windows which provide bracing for cantilevered entranceway).

Situated at the southwest corner of Elm and 12th Streets on the recently renovated Washington Park, the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s new Otto M. Budig Theater is another important cultural/performing arts addition to the renaissance of Over-the-Rhine.  Across the street from the School for the Creative and Performing Arts (S.C.P.A.) and a few doors removed from Cincinnati’s Music Hall and Memorial Hall, the construction of the Budig Theater perpetuates the growing nucleus of the performing arts in this historic district.  With this reality, its neighbors large and small have sensitively added, renovated, or restored their structures to reflect the 19th-century character of the community.  That is not to say that a dramatic piece of contemporary architecture is unwelcome or ill-advised for such a location: although more challenging to achieve success, skilled insertion of a contemporary design in this setting can heighten the appreciation of all the buildings.  Attention to existing structures’ materials, massing, proportions, window spacing, cornice lines, building heights, and other details are just a few of the ways architects can place their projects appropriately within an historic context, and create a juxtaposition between the old and the new.  An excellent example of this locally is the Contemporary Arts Center by Zaha Hadid, where she adroitly “shoe-horned” their new museum onto a very tight downtown site adjacent to a variety of architectural styles and building heights.  By studying the neighboring structures, Ms. Hadid was able to create a tour de force which is sympathetic, yet bold and unique.

As construction began for the Budig Theater, it was with great anticipation and wonder as it rose from the earth, since there were no renderings of its design at the site.  In the 16th-century, William Shakespeare’s performances primarily were held in London’s Globe Theater, designed famously in the round.  In constructing the Budig Theater, the actual performance area portion was built first, and it was with hope that our local version, dedicated to the great bard, would be allowed to be visually expressed on the exterior.  Surrounding the opaque walls of the theater itself during construction were steel columns and beams for the Foyer, ticket office, and concession areas.  As the building progressed, the idea of creating a two story steel and glass exposure enabling unrestricted views from the street of the theater’s interior and activities became a dreamed vision of this writer.

Unfortunately, the final result by G.B.B.N. Architects does not rise to these imagined possibilities.  Instead, passersby are confronted with a mostly windowless box of two-tone ribbed metallic mesh in the colors of mud with minor accents of red and gray brick and the occasional, random punctures of windows at the Second Floor.  Although it does have a floor-to-ceiling glass curtainwall on Elm Street at the First Floor level allowing views of the interior, this architectural gesture to the neighborhood seems weak and inadequate: the theater’s appearance has all of the appeal of an industrial warehouse.  In an attempt to reduce boredom, emphasize its entrance, and relate to 19th-century architecture, a pyramidal peak at the roofline rises at the corner of Elm and 12th Streets.   However, this does only lip-service when seen opposite to the restored angular roof slopes, pinnacles, and spire across the street of the former St. John’s Unitarian Church – a handsome Gothic Revival structure, newly renamed as The Transept and owned by Funky’s Catering for events.

Applied to the theater’s façade are differing graphic signage in sizes and styles, rather inelegantly executed and crudely illuminated with exposed wiring quite apparent when seen from the sidewalk.  All of this is meant to highlight and emphasize the gargantuan name of this facility: “Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s The Otto M. Budig Theater”.  White script lettering announces the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s name, while much larger block letters in tan make emphatic that this is The Otto M. Budig Theater.  The Shakespeare name is one-fourth the size of Budig which somehow should be considered incongruous and inappropriate, yet seemingly is more a statement and reflection of our times.  Let it be said that Mr. Budig is a kind, thoughtful gentleman who has contributed extensively and generously to the betterment of our community for decades.  On numerous occasions, he has stepped forward to lead projects which otherwise probably would not occur without him.  Our city should be very thankful not only for his generosity, but also his years of service and wisdom.  Yet, when the name of the world’s greatest playwright and author is diminished in size by seventy-five percent as compared to the name of the building’s local donor, something is clearly amiss.

Entry into Foyer of Budig Theater features an oversized bar faced with rustic vertical barn siding (note a portion of structural angular beam is visible in front of window at right).

The scale of this signage or even its very existence is less a reflection of Mr. Budig’s ego and more an example of misguided exuberance on the part of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s board and the building’s architect in an attempt to display gratitude.  Patron’s anonymity is no longer in vogue, and it has been replaced with naming rights for everything imaginable.  Wouldn’t it be refreshing for donors to contribute their money while cherishing the option to be discrete in not placing their name on every surface?

There was a time when the architectural styles of buildings were all that was needed to identify a structure.  Local examples include Music Hall, Union Terminal, Carew Tower, and the Procter & Gamble Headquarters; nationally, the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, the U.S. Capitol, and The White House come readily to mind.  If a building makes a statement architecturally, it becomes superfluous to have signage (or the current buzzword “branding”) plastered and illuminated across its façade.  In these examples, the architecture identifies the building and its purpose without words: Music Hall contains exquisite stone carvings referencing music on its exterior which is all that is needed to communicate its usage.  Branding buildings should not be allowed to be a substitute for art, but used simply and distinctly when necessary for the purposes of clarity and direction.

In placing The Otto M. Budig Theater at Elm and 12th Streets, G.B.B.N. Architects and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company as a part of this project were able to adaptively reuse an adjacent restrained Art Deco structure, formerly the Headquarters for the Teamsters, Chauffeurs, and Helpers Union Building.  They should be commended for retaining this building and utilizing it for offices, dressing rooms, and a back-stage set design area.  Its 12th Street Art Deco limestone façade has splendid bronze spandrel panels above Third Floor windows which depict Ionic capitals exploding in a profusion of palm fronds (by the way, the Ionic style was selected respectfully by the union hall’s original architect in order to relate to the earlier pilasters of this same order for the Ophthalmic Hospital across the street).

The new interior is well-planned from a functional standpoint, whether discussing the public areas such as the Foyer, the theater and stage, as well as private offices and behind-the-scenes spaces.  However, the selection of materials and colors becomes a cacophony of disparate elements.  Upon entering the Foyer, one is confronted with the following: modeled gray terrazzo floors; a combination of vertical surfaces in gray concrete with fire engine red accent walls featuring multicolored super-graphics, and rustic vertical barn siding; sleek, dark gray gunmetal panels as railings for the staircase and mezzanine; soldier blue ceiling with exposed mechanicals.  Although normally the visual warmth of wood might be a relief from all of the austere grayness of concrete, metal, and glass, the introduction of rustic, vertical barn siding has nothing to do with the Over-the-Rhine, Downtown Cincinnati, or Shakespeare.  This material was selected additionally as sides of the oversized bar and its top, thus becoming the prevalent décor choice.  Entrances to the theater on both levels are barn siding as well, and lead to the performance theater and stage which, like Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, is in the round.  Its multifaceted stage is situated in such a way that allows no one to be more than 20 feet away from it with only six rows of seating in depth.  The architects were able to achieve this intimacy of 233 people, while doubling the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s former capacity.  Noteworthy, seating on the Upper Gallery is movable and offers great flexibility and ease.

Lamentably, one of the missed architectural opportunities for The Otto M. Budig Theater which could have provided much drama and panache both for its exterior and interior designs are large angular structural beams for bracing located on the First and Second Floors.  Needed to support the cantilevered entranceway, the architects ignored their presence and potential by painting them vanilla in hopes that they would disappear, even though their locations are in front of windows.  On the Second Floor, these structural angular beams are only partially exposed and are allowed to disappear into a wall.  Instead of disguising this structural system with paint and drywall, the architects should have celebrated its existence by having this be the building’s major raison d’être.  This lost chance is unfortunate, because it could have given the theater its design distinction which is so desperately needed.

Architects and their clients have a responsibility to the community, especially in regard to public buildings which often are built to last at least 100 years, if not longer.  As such, great care and much attention should be paid to these structures, if they are to be worthy of veneration in years to come.

Two-story portion of Foyer contains gray gunmetal panels as railings for staircase and mezzanine. Vertical barn siding highlights entrances on both levels into theater.

–Stewart Maxwell

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