OSU Tour – Knowlton School and Wexner Center

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.

Knowlton Exterior Rear

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.

Knowlton 5 Columns

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.

Knowlton Overhang

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.

Knowlton Exterior Side

Knowlton Vertical Window

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.

Knowlton Front Entry

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.

Knowlton Int Entry

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.

Knowlton Circulation

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.

Knowlton Perim Skylights

Knowlton Perim Skylight 02

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.

Knowlton Rainscreen Detail

Knowlton Handrail

Knowlton Utilities

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.

Knowlton Lighting

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.

Knowlton Office Box

It’s tough to say for sure. One thing everyone can agree on is that this rooftop garden is badass.

Knowlton Rooftop Garden

Knowlton Porthole Above

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.

Knowlton Porthole Below

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.

Wexner Approach

Wexner Canopy from Out

Wexner Secret Garden

Wexner Canopy Above

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.

Wexner Ramparts Back

The same goes for walking underneath the white superstructure between the Wexner Center and the adjacent building.

Wexner Canopy from In

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?

6 thoughts on “OSU Tour – Knowlton School and Wexner Center

  1. I think I’ve earned the right to counterpoint this post.

    I think your drawing too many conclusions from two people who happened not to like a building you thought was cool. I don’t think you can assume that just because you and the guy who recommended you check it out like the building, all architects like the building; or conversely because two non-architects don’t like the building that all non-architects won’t like it.

    I don’t like it because it’s a hulking, inelegant mass. The finishes, both interior and exterior, will always make it feel damp and dirty to me. The circulation was confusing, and I can’t imagine that it’s a good environment to foster creativity. Architecture is, in theory, a creative enterprise. The place where it’s taught should lend itself to lively discussion and collaboration. But when I walked in to the Knowlton School, I had the same feeling I get when I walk into a memorial (I was thinking McKinley Monument, but for those of you not from Canton, take your pick of any DC monument). It felt somber and I felt like I shouldn’t talk. There were some nice things–the rooftop garden, a nice looking library, and a concrete staircase that I was particularly fond of. But overall, this building was pretty awful. I stand by my comment that the stadium was more interesting. I didn’t say good. I didn’t say beautiful. But if I had the budget for one building and these were the options, the Knowlton School would not have been built.

    Since we didn’t go inside the Wexner Center, it’s harder to talk about. I did feel it was more welcoming as well as more visually pleasing. The white steel surrounding the building as well as the proportion of glass in the building itself gave a feeling of delicacy. Wandering around this building, you walk through a maze of gardens and attractive retaining walls (as opposed to dark damp overhangs–who cares if you get a little wet? We had an umbrella). I thought the turrets were strange, but this building just had a better feeling about it.

    Walking across the Smithfield Street Bridge today, I could see two parking garages. The facade of one is a framework of painted red steel–it’s very open and feels light, for lack of a better description. The other has 3-foot concrete kneewalls with a metal railing at every level–while it is, objectively speaking, open, it feels more substantial. Assuming both were open and cost the same, I would park at the first one. Why? Because the second one makes me feel damp, dirty, and a little more likely to encounter rats, muggers, or rapists, whereas the first one just makes me feel better in general. I think, for me, this is an apt analogy for this comparison. I don’t have a good, high-brow, intellectual reasoning to give, just my gut reaction.

    • I realize that my sample size is too small to draw statistically relevant conclusions, but I think there is a certain type of building that architects like and “normal people” don’t. I agree with you on some things. I don’t know that it felt somber to me, but I did feel a pressure to keep quiet, probably because of the echo, which is a function of the extensive concrete on the interior. I also agree that it’s a place I might not like to work because I think there is a general lack of privacy. I also don’t want to speak to the circulation. I know that I was able to get everywhere that I wanted to go, but I didn’t try using it to get from one specific place to another specific place, so I can’t say if it works or not.

      What is most upsetting to the architect in me is that it seems like all the bad experiences you’ve had with concrete structures in the past makes it difficult for you to consider it in a new way. I think the overhangs were great, most of them were multi-storey, I didn’t think any of them were dark or damp despite the clouds and rain. The building outside doesn’t show many windows, but inside it was still well lit with natural light. I can imagine designing this building and being really proud of the way it subverts the expectations you have of concrete, which only makes it more sad that that doesn’t come across to you.

      I also don’t understand what you think is good and bad and why. You’re willing to get a little wet if the building is visually pleasing. Confusing circulation is bad, but garden mazes are good. It’s these breaks in communication that I’m trying to bridge and this blog is part of it, so I guess I still have a long way to go. Anyway, good counterpoint. Hopefully someone else will chime in, otherwise we could have just done this at home.

  2. I don’t think my past “bad experiences” (you make it sound so sordid) with concrete have affected my ability to look at this building in a new way. To be honest, I hated the marble facade before I even saw that the inside was all concrete. And here’s a house I actually like (and not just because of the gimmick) that is concrete and still manages to look light, airy, and welcoming:


    The inside does have a good bit of natural light, but not enough, in my opinion, to subvert anything. It’s not that it didn’t come across because I’m not an architect and therefore ignorant in such matters, it didn’t come across because it just wasn’t enough to make that big of an impression. The lack of windows outside also makes me not even want to go in, which seems problematic.

    I think I’ve been pretty clear about what I like and don’t like and why, though admittedly it’s not an academic reason. I tend to like architecture that’s light, airy and open. And I liked the delicate and clean feel to the Wexner Center. I do not like architecture that is bulky and heavy-feeling or lacks warmth. And I don’t like buildings that feel dank and dirty to me. I understand that they didn’t feel that way to you, but that’s not a communication break down, that’s just a difference of opinion.

    You have a fair point about there being a contradiction between my disliking the confusing circulation while liking the garden mazes. I guess the difference is 1) we ran into a dead end or two in the building, which annoyed me, and 2) because the building is unwelcoming to me, I want to get where I’m going as fast as possible, whereas the garden would be somewhere I’d want to wander around, sit down with a book, etc.

    And yeah, I don’t mind getting a little wet if the building is visually pleasing. Especially since the other building gave me the feeling of being damp anyway. This is really similar to our discussions about whether or not to tear down the enclosure at the back porch. I think it’s ugly, will always appear dirty no matter how much I clean it, and a bit claustrophobic. I’d rather tear it down and put up a more attractive, open porch area, even if that means when we want to sit outside while it’s raining, we get a little wet. And my idea of a compromise is something with much more open area that would open easily to the outside–something that feels lighter and cleaner. I feel like I’m pretty consistent on this, so I don’t understand what it is that you don’t understand.

    Good counter-counter point. We’re going to have nothing to talk about at home tonight.

  3. I appreciate the David Lynch comparison. Having never experienced these buildings, but trained as an artist, I am right on board with understanding that feeling of knowing decisions have been considered and that it is (should be?) ‘great’, but just not quite sure why….

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