Did'nt we have adiscussion about this a while back Paul?
After the buzz disappears, so do the crowds
Cincinnati Arts Center
San Francisco Chronicle, February 14, 2006.
Cincinnati -- When architect Zaha Hadid strutted her stuff on Sixth Street in 2003, critics swooned and attendance soared -- two reasons the Contemporary Arts Center in this long-struggling downtown hired her in the first place.
Three years later, the building's still there. The crowds aren't, judging by what I saw earlier this month. And this would-be icon stands as a cautionary tale: In an age when celebrity architects are courted by cities and institutions desperate to make a splash, brand-name buzz can fade quicker than a fresh coat of paint.
Not that you'll find much paint adorning Hadid's energetic concoction at Walnut and Sixth streets, a jabbing collage of concrete piled atop glass.
The exterior resembles an interlocked and overlapped set of unadorned cubes starting to pull apart. A long black form shoves out toward Walnut Street, while a gray slab that looks like a squat sideways L is perched on thin concrete stilts above the ground floor's glass wall.
Step inside and the sharp-angled confusion continues; the only curve comes as the floor slides up to become the rear wall, a move that Hadid dubbed the "urban carpet" whisking the city into the institution. Alongside it, a black ramp slices upwards five stories through a thin atrium. At each stop there's a varied jostle of galleries -- connected by twists and turns rather than the spacious art-lined passages you expect in a museum.
Part of this is the jammed demands of the shoebox-shaped site, and the needs of a center with no permanent collection that prides itself on exhibiting "art of the last 10 minutes." But the provocative shape also is a 3-D realization of the models and drawings by Hadid that captivated critics in the 1980s and '90s, though few of her designs actually got built.
Imagine atoms shooting out from the Big Bang -- and being captured in architectural forms.
Personal details made the story even better for cultural trend-spotters. Here was an Iraq-born British citizen with a personality to match her flamboyant designs getting her biggest commission yet -- her first one in America -- for the nation's first major museum designed by a woman.
No wonder Charlie Rose had Hadid on his PBS talk show. Twice!
When the doors swung open in May 2003, architecture critics burst into rapturous applause. "Wandering through the building is like exploring the varied and unpredictable terrain of present time," wrote the New York Times' Herbert Muschamp. Nicolai Ouroussoff of the Los Angeles Times (who now occupies Muschamp's post) hailed "a titillating architectural experience" that offers "the kind of cultural sustenance our world craves."
As for the "urban carpet," Abby Bussel of Architecture magazine proclaimed that it "upends the city, stirring it like a Tom Collins cocktail and reordering it in a Piranesian dreamscape."
The city soaked it all up; one official at the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce called the center "a hook to get people to take a deeper look at what our region has to offer." Membership tripled to 6,200 at the center itself, which had last attracted national attention in 1990 when the director was put on trial for obscenity (and acquitted) for showing a Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit.
"It means a new beginning for the city," one guest told the Cincinnati Enquirer on opening night. "I'm sick of people putting us down. We are so not dead."
But when I stopped by this month on a weekday afternoon, I pretty much had the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art to myself. And on a gray day with nobody but docents in sight, something else was missing -- the sense of kinetic urgency that makes Hadid a critical favorite.
The concrete felt heavy; the spaces seemed dark. Up close, the physical details weren't engaging. As for the vaunted urban carpet, I wouldn't have noticed the transition of floor to wall if I hadn't been primed to look for it.
Also underwhelming: the outside of the building, which shares a block dominated by a Stalinesque parking garage and an icy-dull high-rise. Instead of a cubist sculpture itching to explode, it looked more like a monochromatic hipster who crashed the wrong party.
The center's rewarding, no doubt about it, particularly for anyone interested in today's architecture. But it isn't transcendent, much less the "dream sensation of ... an alternative world," to again quote the ever-quotable Muschamp.
Nor is it a catalyst -- and that's what bothered me the most.
Here's why: Back in 1981, when the Contemporary Arts Center was still tucked in a storefront above Fountain Square, I interned at the Cincinnati Enquirer in a terrific 1920s tower one block from where the center is now.
Though downtown wasn't buoyant by any stretch, it had a cosmopolitan air. Fountain Square was lively, with shops and restaurants nearby serving a clientele that wanted urbanity but didn't have time to visit Chicago or New York. The place felt great, a big city working hard to defy the odds.
But that's a long time ago, and in the interval, things came apart. The arts center isn't the only big-ticket bid for attention; there also are new sports stadiums along the Ohio River and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. But the center did not hold: Downtown feels dingy and tired. Fountain Square is being redone. The Enquirer moved out. So did Graeter's, purveyors of the best chocolate chip ice cream in the world. It's even hard to find Skyline Chili, the indigenous cuisine.
The art center's membership is back to 3,500.
In other words, Hadid's architectural pyrotechnics haven't reversed the tide. Granted, I visited on a bleak day in bleak midwinter. But empty storefronts and "office for rent" signs aren't seasonal.
This isn't to say the continued troubles are her fault; working with Cincinnati firm KZF Design, Hadid created an arts showplace that intrigues without overwhelming, inside and out.
The problem is that it was touted as more -- a civic savior and an architectural milestone. Like too many buildings completed since Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Hadid's arts center was intended as a larger-than-life phenomenon. But when we're asked to judge architecture on the basis of sensation rather than structure, the result is bound to ring hollow once the crowds move on.
The proof's right here. On full view. With no lines.