This spring, I asked my students at the University of Cincinnati to build a gigantic model of one of Cincinnati’s neighborhoods, Over-the-Rhine (or OTR, as people here call it) out of porcelain. I wasn’t quite sure why I wanted them to do it, other than that I had a sense that I wanted them to explore and represent the materiality of the place rather than just proposing abstractions to solve its many social and physical problems. The result, which they presented at final reviews a few weeks ago, is a 6-by-8-foot mess of ceramics that succeeds at that goal. At the same time, it makes clear the conundrum that any designer faces when working in a decaying and disenfranchised neighborhood: Your work aestheticizes the problems away.

OTR has the largest collection of Victorian-era structures in North America. About three-quarters of them are either abandoned or uninhabitable. After many false attempts, gentrification seems now to be finally setting in. One run of about two blocks along the area’s central artery, Vine Street, has turned into an almost unbroken strip of restaurants, bars, and boutiques. Several structures around these hot spots have been or are now being fixed up; mostly white professionals are moving in. Sitting at one of the new coffee bars last weekend, I watched a parade of well-to-do whites parade by. African Americans, who still make up the majority of OTR’s population, were fewer to be found on the strip.

The students collected the usual trove of data and images, which made it clear that the area’s history was not exactly glamorous. It was developed to house the late 19th-century influx of immigrants (mainly German, hence the name), who then had to cram into very tight quarters with little open space around them. Over the decades, successive waves of poor inhabitants—including Appalachians after the First World War and African Americans after that—have made due with these cramped conditions. Decay made for more room, with many buildings disappearing from the landscape and decreasing amenities. It is a neighborhood sporting some beautiful façades and a walkable scale, but with bad bones. The disappearance of so many row houses has only exposed the façade-oriented thinness and darkness of many of the tenements.

What appeals to most visitors and now inhabitants is the sense of detail and density, and that in turn is due to the fact that most of the buildings have brick skins. Brick gives a texture, depth, and a sense of solidity, as well as subtle variety that no modern material can match. It was that character I wanted the students to explore. Cincinnati is, after all, the home to Rookwood Pottery (where the model is now on display), which was once the best art pottery in America. I imagined my students building the model up like ceramic artists, but also in the way brick constructs a reality.

Today’s reality, though, is different. The students used Google Earth and other tools to construct a digital model, and then CNC milled a mold for the model’s basic contours. The only thing they made by hand were the buildings they attached to this base. A blue glaze gave the whole model a patina.

Over the course of the semester, many of the parts broke, and much of the model displayed cracks. All that just served to reinforce the sense of aging, use, and inherent decay proper to both the model and the original. The model, in other words, served the purpose of bringing out and displaying OTR’s character.

The process also meant that the students got to know the area fully, through their hands as well as their eyes. But the end result was still a thing that is attractive in its semi-decayed state, one that invited elaboration in the form of the student projects they inserted into this base. (I asked them to propose speculative projects, rather than concrete solutions such as new housing or retail, for OTR.) That again raises the question: Do we aestheticize a physical construct that was never well-made so that we may transform and enjoy it?

That seems to me a question central to all architecture that addresses rehabilitation and renovation. I can only hope that the students and their audience realize this conundrum as they go to work on real problems.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.