Contemporary Arts Center
44 East 6th Street
Zaha Hadid (Associate Architect: KZF Incorporated. Donald L. Cornett, Mark
Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center is the first built project in the
United States by celebrated London-based architect Zaha Hadid. More than
another example of the "Bilbao Effect" - the "build it and
they will come" attitude that so many cities have taken on after the
success of Gehry's building in Bilbao - the CAC is simply the latest
building in a long line of projects that the city of Cincinnati has taken
on over the last ten years, including works by Peter
Eisenman, Frank Gehry
Unlike other recent works to
receive such press in Cincinnati, the CAC is the first major project to go
up in the city's somewhat declining downtown. In response to the
metropolitan setting of the building, Hadid developed the concept of the
"urban carpet", to draw in pedestrian traffic inherent to a
downtown area. The "urban carpet" is articulated by a seamless
run of concrete that begins outside the building, continues into the
mezzanine level and eventually curves upward at the far end of the
building behind the stairs. Though in theory this concept seems admirable
it's not very visible. In fact, if it were not for fact that the concept
was highly publicized in the Cincinnati area during the design process, it
would be missed by many if not all visitors.
The building came with a $27.5
million tag, something that is apparent when one notices that every room,
gallery and passageway in the
building has a name attached to it. The most comical of these is
the main entrance airlock, which is identified with a small plaque that
reads "The Mr & Mrs ______ Vestibule." Nevertheless, the
many names for galleries and passageways are a sign of how a relatively
small city like Cincinnati can have enough forward-thinking individuals
willing to support the building of such a structure.
Perhaps the most interesting and successful portion of the building are
stairs in the back of the building. Though Hadid was forced to separate
building very clearly between gallery and traffic space (due to a wide,
shallow lot), the juxtaposition between these two works well, with the
angular stairs activating otherwise static gallery volumes. The stairs
up through a narrow space, thus creating a void, which plays nicely with
the massive volumes making up the rest of the structure.
Sadly some of the gallery spaces
appear small, and oddly shaped. As a result of this, we are often forced
to acknowledge the building at times when perhaps we should be admiring
the work presented inside the building instead. This interplay between
museum building and art is certainly not new, and perhaps in this case is
heightened by the small footprint that the building was allowed. What is
unusual is that such an interplay appears to come about by circumstantial
factors (size of the lot) rather than Hadid's propensity to create
unusually shaped or sized spaces.
In fact, Hadid seems to have
almost completely abstained from the extremes she is known for in the
Contemporary Arts Center, opting instead for more traditionally shaped
volumes. This slight shift towards more conventional shapes (if it is
possible to call it that) and away from the razor-sharp points and
overhangs that she used previously in buildings such as her Vitra
Fire station is mostly apparent in the façade. Standing across the
street looking up at the building, the lively volumes appear to shift but
only slightly, in an almost orderly fashion more in line with the urban
context of the building than her previous projects, giving passersby a façade
reminiscent of Eisenman's Aronoff
Center for Design and Art. However instead of using Eisenman's unusual
color scheme to further activate the composition, Hadid lets the volumes
and their arrangement speak for themselves, with their exterior skin
varying from concrete to black aluminum panels.
Hadid still manages to give us some of the tricks she is well known for.
Upon entering the building, to the right hand side we see a descending
staircase that appears to be tilted to one side, almost falling over.
Anyone who has visited the Vitra Fire House and has experienced the
optical illusions in the bathroom/locker area will quickly realize who
designed the Contemporary Arts Center. And it is in these circulatory
spaces (which most architects treat in a mundane fashion) that Hadid
Though the building is certainly
fascinating, and its undulating staircase
would be worthy of being considered an art object in itself, one has
to wonder if it would be treated the same way if it weren't the first
building in the country by someone like Zaha Hadid.
How to visit
The museum is located in
downtown Cincinnati at the intersection of Walnut and 6th Street. Plenty
of parking is available in underground lots around Cincinnati, though like
most downtowns the price and availability will vary during work
From I-75 South, take the
Seventh Street Exit ( Exit 1F). Make a slight left onto Seventh Street.
Make a right onto Walnut, and then a right onto Sixth Street.