This weekend I found myself in Columbus, OH, privileged globetrotter that I am. Since I was in town, I decided to check out some newish buildings on the campus of The Ohio State University, the Knowlton Architecture School by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects and the Wexner Center for the Arts by Peter Eisenmann.
I visited the Knowlton Architecture School with Angela and Liam. The architecture, like anything worth talking about, proved to be divisive, but I’ll get to that later. For now let’s just see what we can see, and you can come to your own conclusion as long as it’s the same as mine.
We parked in the stadium parking lot, so the first view that we got was actually of the rear of the building. Right away the majority viewpoint was that the stadium was more interesting than the school.
I’ll let it be forever a mystery who the dissenting vote was on that one. The rear courtyard was the next thing that we encountered, where 5 types of columns are arranged in order, almost like the famous “evolution of man” sketch.
In case you couldn’t tell from the first picture, the finish at the outside of the building is marble. I think it’s interesting to explicitly call back that material here in the courtyard, using marble both to document the history of architecture and to clad a piece of present architecture as well.
It has been pouring on the ride over to the campus, but the rain had slowed to a sprinkle as we walked around to the front of the building, searching for an unlocked door. Even so, I was grateful for the generous overhangs. Walking around the building was nice, even though there were a few dead ends that could have been solved with a connecting stair or two. I took a few more shots on the way to the main entrance.
When we finally got to the front of the building I didn’t walk far enough away from it to get a proper shot of the facade because I’m such a great blogger. I did take a picture of the main entry, though, which I thought was pretty cool.
Note the red sign pointing to the main entry. I also came across a sign that read “this is not an entrance” at the aforementioned dead end. Modern pieces of architecture tend to have this wayfinding problem, perhaps going so far in flouting convention as to confuse the casual visitor. Is this a big problem? Probably, if the solution ends up being an ugly old red sign. I’ll let you decide. Anyway, the door to the main entry was open and we were luckily able to explore the interior as well.
Concrete dominates the interior of the building. The circulation is made up of a long line of sloped hallways that run the entire length of the building, right down the middle. Staircases branch off of these hallways that give access to the studio and office spaces. This picture is a bit blurry, but maybe you can get a feeling for what it might be like once you’re up on these “catwalks”, being able to see and pass other people on the other side of a narrow canyon.
It was really great to meander along these hallways and shift between the various levels. We didn’t really have a goal in mind, so I can’t speak to how efficient it is to get from one place to another, though. Also, I think I know where the elevators probably are but I can’t recall seeing any. Another one of those wayfinding problems, probably. The studios on the upper level are lit at their perimeter by pulling the roof away from the wall.
It’s a really big, powerful move, one that I think is really effective. In fact, I think the big moves is where this building excels most. I like the exterior skin and the way that it interacts with the pedestrian, I like that the architect judiciously used curves to break up the linearity of the building, I like the overall organization of the building. The details are where things start to fall flat.
The top image is a close-up of the clip system that holds up the marble on the exterior. I get that they probably wanted to show off the attachment system as a modern way of thinking about detail and possibly for the benefit of the students inside, too, I just don’t think the clips are very attractive. The middle image is the detail of the handrail caps, which is not terribly exciting. To top it off (so to speak), several of these caps were loose or misaligned, and it didn’t make sense to me to highlight this detail if it wasn’t going to be executed more consistently. Finally, take note of the sprinkler pipes in the bottom image. They follow the geometry of the building, but they do more to take away from that geometry than enhance it. Also, the concrete here and throughout is left more or less unfinished, and raw concrete feels hard and cold, and doesn’t look great, either. The custom light fixtures didn’t thrill me, either.
This shot of the ceiling brings up other issues, too. All that concrete does nothing to absorb sound. I found a student who was working there and asked him about the building and he said that since he had only been around for the summer, he couldn’t say whether or not it got unbearably noisy during studio times. However, while we were talking two other people were trying to have a conversation and found myself having to struggle to hear him, which doesn’t bode well. Also, I imagine being a student working here might be a bit unsettling. There were many places where I could stand at a railing and overlook the whole studio space, which makes me think that if I was a student I would feel like I was being watched all the time.
It’s tough to say for sure. One thing everyone can agree on is that this rooftop garden is badass.
Here’s a view of that same “porthole” from outside the main entrance. I love this picture, it’s so surreal to see up through this inverse chimney to some ivy four floors above you.
After we were done with the Knowlton School, we headed over to rush through the Wexner Center. We weren’t able to get inside and we were pressed for time, so I’ll just drop a few pictures here with minimal commentary.
Walking through an Eisenmann building is like watching a David Lynch movie; I know that I’m experiencing something “great”, but I can’t quite figure out why. The Wexner Center illustrates this well. For example, I know he means for us to see the “unfinished” backside of these brick ramparts for some reason, but I don’t know what it means.
The same goes for walking underneath the white superstructure between the Wexner Center and the adjacent building.
This is pretty awesome, but I couldn’t tell you if it’s just supposed to be cool to look at or be a metaphor for the process of artistic instruction. This makes me pretty self-conscious as an architect, because telling you what a design move “means” and convincing you it’s right is part of my job. That’s part of the reason why I was so surprised to hear Angela say how much she liked the Wexner Center while dismissing the Knowlton School. For her, the Knowlton was dank and uninviting, the Wexner not so. As I mentioned before, it was raining when we first arrived, and I didn’t find the areas under the Knowlton to be dank at all. Maybe that white structure feels more inviting somehow, but it does jack shit for you in a downpour. One of our dinner companions that night said he didn’t “get” the Knowlton School and cited those 5 ancient columns holding up nothing, but also said he loved the Wexner Center which I thought had many more puzzling aspects. So what does it mean when a building can provide protection from the rain but still be called uninviting, when it can be perfectly dry and and still be called dank? Is it OK for a building designed for architects, by architects, to only be liked by architects, too? Should we worry about those architects going forth into the world and forcing other misunderstood monsters on an unreceptive public? Am I drawing too many conclusions from 2 people who happened not to like a building I thought was cool? Does the number of rhetorical questions asked at the end of a blog post correlate with the number of comments on it?