It is a truism that a building under construction is much more beautiful than when it is completed. The architect’s intentions are present—as is the beauty of raw materials—and the space is still full of possibilities.

I was reminded of this truism when I took a hard-hat tour through the former art academy building at the Cincinnati Art Museum . Taking in the renovation, I noted the shell of the preserved 1887 Richardsonian Romanesque walls ,where a steel skeleton now frames what will soon be our new library and offices. The staircases are in, the floor slabs have been poured, and the interior partitions are now being laid out. 

This is the magic moment. All the elements of the building are there—in all their naked glory—but still without the things that will turn this from an expression of structure into a highly functional artifact. It will have good spaces and is well designed (our architects, the Emersion Design team, will see to that). With each piece, you get a sense of a new space that we have opened up within the old building, and the construction is at its fullest extent.

In a way, buildings under construction are the counterparts to ruins. While ruins are a reminder of the ephemerality and vanity of all things humans make, construction fills us with hope, even if it is tinged with the sense that the building, like us, will grow up into something, casting other choices aside.

Truth be told, architects have always been attracted to construction—they just tend to hide their naked desires under polite designer dresses and claim that they are only in it for the space. Most of us were first attracted to architecture because of the act of building. Piling blocks on top of each other, putting the Legos through their paces, or assembling the Erector Set makes us ready for the real thing, where steel beams show of their connections, concrete flexes its muscles, and panels rise to the heavens.

It is the glory of possibilities as much as the beauty of each element revealed so clearly that makes this construction so beautiful. It is at a point like the one in which I walked through the former art academy building that any such structure is like a church: an almost empty vessel, there to intimate the glories of something larger through its very presence. But that is only a moment.  Soon, this building will do what we asked the architect to make it to, and we will be grateful for is functionality and its beauty. 

In the meantime, standing in the open space of the third floor, smelling the concrete and the faint burning of the blowtorch, measuring the rhythm of the steel columns with my eyes, and feeling a joy that we managed to commission what will be a fantastic piece of architecture, filled me with great satisfaction and joy for architecture’s potential and the beauty of its materiality.