Beyond Buildings


A Gathering of Student Work: My Studio at the University of Cincinnati

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Derek Sommers 2
Image credit: Derek Sommers

For a few years, I have been arguing for the importance of architecture not as the making of more new objects we don’t really need and that use up natural resources, but as the thoughtful gathering of what already exists, the opening of existing spaces, and the reuse of forms, images, and ideas. As a failed or former architect (which might also explain my motivation), I only get to point out where I see examples of such strategies, but occasionally I teach a studio, and then I can work with students to see what they come up with in terms of an architecture beyond buildings.

This fall, I co-taught such a studio (with Eli Meiners) at the University of Cincinnati. The project was a real one: the conversion of a former Kroger supermarket building into an open storage facility for the Cincinnati Art Museum, a Montessori school, and studios and display space for artists. The rules of the studio were a bit different: you could do anything you wanted, as long as it was begged, borrowed or stolen; your design did not have to be efficient or buildable, but gathered together from existing materials or from other buildings.

We started by making a “harvest map,” an inventory of reusable materials pioneered by the Dutch firm 2012 Architects. Students found the usual recyclable doors, windows, lumber, metal, tubes, and other building materials, but they also came up with plastic sheets left over after signs had been punched out and tennis balls that lose their bounce after a certain amount of play.

Mike Pasquale 1
Image credit: Michael Pasquale

We urged them to use existing spatial enclosures-–the shipping container is very popular these days, but I also asked them to look at the kind of storage sheds you can find at your local Home Depot. One of the students, Michael Pasquale, used a lot of these elements to house both the Art Museum collections and artists’ studios. He left the Kroger building as a community space that could become a place to play basketball or hold a farmer’s market.

Final Layout2
Image credit: Todd Ebeltoft

Another student, Todd Ebeltoft, re-used the building itself, as well as six other similar supermarkets that have been abandoned. After consulting with an engineer, he figured out that he could cut up to 8’ by 30’ sections out and recompose them to create layered boxes to contain most of the program.

Max Peterschmidt 1

Image credit: Max Peterschmidt

Max Peterschmidt 3
Image Credit: Max Peterschmidt

Max Peterschmidt 2
Image credit: Max Peterschmidt

Max Peterschmidt realized that there were a lot of bridges and overpasses in the Rust Belt waiting to be reused, and created a constructivist vision of classrooms lifted over the supermarket. The containers for kids could move up and down. It might not have been the most energy efficient suggestion, but it certainly was the most energetic.

Derek Sommers 3
Image credit: Derek Sommers

Derek Sommers 1
Image credit: Derek Sommers

The wildest scheme was that of Derek Sommers. Proposing that most of the site should be left to go back to nature, a condition he felt would be guaranteed by inviting feral cats to patrol the resurgent prairie grasses, he then mashed together six different McKim, Mead, and White designs to house all the functions. These buildings had proven their ability to provide a civic framework for what they housed, and made for good spaces. Realizing that we can no longer build such neo-classical structures in full detail, he proposed creating them in the cheapest, most suburban manner possible, and then hiding their necessarily abstracted details behind recycled parachute and shipping fabric.

The point, after all, was not to pursue “sustainable” strategies, but to get us out of the mindset of invention and new-making. Sommers and some of the other students pursued this strategy with great verve. I hope they and others will continue their experiments.

To those who commented about my Singapore blogs:  yes; I was serious about messiness, and yes, it will happen over time--if over-zealous planners give it a chance. Whether it is Asian, European, or pan-global depends on how the city-state evolves; and yes, I made an egregious geographic mistake, the Mariana Trench is not anywhere near Singapore. My apologies. A.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.