The Architecture of the Ring of Red
The spectacle of architecture comes off best when it is architecture of spectacle. In our society, that means, as often as not, sports. The problem is that there is very little sports architecture of note. Most of our larger stadiums are designed by the continually shifting alphabet soup of specialized firms, each of which manages to veer between the ridiculous and ridiculously popular <i>retarditaire</i> to the flashily futurist flailing of steel beams. When Peter Eisenman gets the chance to design an NFL stadium, for the Arizona Cardinals, his work dissipates through the process until it is unrecognizable. We get bread and circus but precious little architecture.
But for those of you that were glued to the spectacle box last Friday to watch the suddenly glorious University of Cincinnati Bearcats beat out the West Virginia Mountaineers—and I am sure all of you were—you might have glimpsed architecture peeking out from around the Ring of Red, as the stadium is just as suddenly being called. If you could take your eyes off sophomore quarterback Zach Collaros’ balletic moves, you might have noticed the vaguely L-shaped blob that is Bernard Tschumi’s Athletic Center and the sweep of Thom Mayne’s Recreation Center at it sculpts Nippert Stadium’s bowl, embracing the Bearcats’ brilliance. If you really squinted at the high definition scenes the Goodyear blimp was broadcasting around the country, you would have seen buildings by Harry Cobb, Charles Gwathmey, Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman and other running backs of the architectural avant garde.
The University of Cincinnati, long an unloved accumulation of
structures and programs in search of an identity, is in the hunt for a
national football title for the first time in its history with a 10-0
team that is ranked among the top five in the country. Its campus has
similarly vaulted into the highest ranks of achievement, and at the
core of that ensemble of architectural excellence is Nippert Stadium.
University of Cincinnati campus
This is especially remarkable because the tiny venue (it barely contained 35,000 people last Friday) is, as the broadcasters kept pointing out, shoehorned into the campus. It has no presence of its own. What makes it so successful is that it shapes and is formed by its adjacent buildings and landscape: to the west and south is the natural hill that used to divide the campus into two halves, to the east is the Athletic Center, and to the north the Recreation Center forms a grandstand protecting viewers and players from the wind.
George Hargreaves, the landscape architect who really deserves the credit for making the University of Cincinnati into a coherent and beautiful place, used the stadium’s curve to define a sloping pathway running down from the campus’ old center to the east to a new area of student facilities and open green space to the west. Called “Mainstrasse” (Cincinnati is a very German town), the artery is lined with student services and unfolds so gradually you do not notice the more than five vertical stories you traverse from one end to the other.
The Recreation Center forms the anchor to this unfurling pedestrian street, and does so with great drama. But at night, it served its function as a background, a place from which to watch the game (I have done so while running around its track, suspended between its beams seventy feet over the basketball fields), a framework that focused our attention on the heroics on the field. That is as it should be: the architecture of spectacle works best when it is not itself a spectacle, but allows these eruptions of public violence and grace to become even more intense. “All I wanted to achieve,” Jacques Herzog once told me about a stadium he designed, “is to make the crowd so intense that our team wins.” In Cincinnati, Hargreaves, Mayne, Tschumi, and the others have achieved that goal.
Shameless self-promotion beyond even boosting the Bearcats: http://www.ultrafragola.com (click on "MAXXI").