Contemporary Arts Center
44 East 6th Street
Cincinnati
Ohio 45202
USA

Zaha Hadid (Associate Architect: KZF Incorporated. Donald L. Cornett, Mark Stedtefeld) 2001-2003

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 and Michael Graves.

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 the
stairs in the back of the building. Though Hadid was forced to separate the
building very clearly between gallery and traffic space (due to a wide, but
shallow lot), the juxtaposition between these two works well, with the
angular stairs activating otherwise static gallery volumes. The stairs climb
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 shines. 

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. 

Bellon 2004


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 hours. 

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.

For more information please visit www.contemporaryartscenter.org or call +1 513 345 8400. For information about group tours call +1 513 345 8420.

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