Beyond Buildings


History Lesson

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It was a bit of a blast from my California past: "Hey, Aaron, Craig Hodgetts here. We just won a 25 Year Award from the Ohio AIA for the Southside Settlement House, but we can't make it. Would you mind picking it up for us?" As the convention was in Cincinnati, the place I call home now, and as I used to work for Hodgetts and Ming Fung, it seemed appropriate. Having just written here last week about SCI-Arc, where I taught with Hodgetts and his partner in Studio Works, Robert Mangurian, with whom he designed the Settlement House, I was musing about that particular time in architectural history anyhow.


Southside Settlement House

Southside Settlement House (credit: Mary Ann Sullivan)


History is really the point. What makes Southside Settlement House, which opened in 1984 in the gritty Germantown neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, so good is that it is a modern building with classical tricks. Constructed out of cinder block, it sports columns made from galvanized metal tubes left over from concrete casting, shed roofs, and portal windows. The exterior is a cement shingle-clad bar shape interrupted by the bulge of what turns out to be one of the main gathering spaces. Ramps connect the raised interior level to the outside and provide a place for children playing. Cut into the combination of classrooms, offices and community facilities is a courtyard that has all the attributes of a stage. Symmetries form, break and reshape around the space, scale jumps as windows become too big for their frame, then crouches down below low overhangs. A roof rises up to a slow arch, a wall opens up into a porch, and every screw and bolt emphasizes the play of forms. The model was, according to Hodgetts and Mangurian, a medieval town. The effect is a fairytale castle for the kids who use the place.


Southside Settlement House Courtyard

Southside Settlement House Courtyard (credit: Mary Ann Sullivan)


On the inside, the Settlement House opens up into an amazing variety of stage sets: a staircase that becomes a fireplace and a wall that becomes a screen, low passageways, aediculas and turrets. As you move through the space, you watch and are watched, the circulation areas become place to gather or perform, and the whole building builds a community by inviting us act together, to act out, to activate our relations within the building's frame.


If the moves seem familiar, they are: James Stirling and Robert Venturi, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, and Brunelleschi and Palladio each contributed to this mashup of architectural history. This is, in other words, a thoroughly Postmodern building. The tricks it uses are there because time has proven them capable of binding us to a place, making us aware of where we are (including both the vaguely colonial houses and anonymous boxes around the building), and connecting us to a shared past. They are abstracted because the Settlement House is part of a modern world in which economy, utility, and the democracy that leeches aristocratic and singular references out of our language of shared purpose asks us to come together not to recreate lost meaning, but to create new ones.


The Southside Settlement House certainly deserves its award. Hodgetts, now with Fung at Hodgetts+Fung Design and Architecture, and Mangurian, now with Mary Ann Ray, have continued this brand of gritty theatricality in their recent work. Hodgetts will show his early drawings in an exhibition that opens at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles on October 31. The past lives and continues, and I can only hope that Ohio will someday will be able to rise above the bland brand of modernist reductionism that now seems to be its state style to open its mind and heart again to a future-looking form of history.




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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.