In The New York Times a little more than a decade ago, Herbert Muschamp famously declared the 2003 Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Ohio, designed by Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, “the most important American building to be completed since the cold war.” Were Muschamp to revisit the museum today, he would have to revise that claim.
The ground-floor Kaplan Hall Lobby, which Hadid conceived as an “urban carpet” that extends the street into the building, has been compromised by an inappropriate renovation and mismatched art installations that denature the original taut, disciplined, abstract design. This curatorial misdemeanor, unveiled in late March, was committed by the very staff entrusted with the stewardship of this museum of national architectural significance.
The intentions were good and valid: the Rosenthal Center undertook the $1.1 million upgrade to make the lobby more inviting, to entice passersby into the space. Jim Stapleton, AIA, a principle of FRCH Design Worldwide, which designed and coordinated the project pro bono, wrote to me in an email that the goal was to build on Hadid’s idea of the urban carpet: “Our mantra was ‘inside out and outside in’ ... to bring in more of the outside street life into the lobby, while at the same time bringing more artistic life inside of the building to the outside. We were all big fans of the urban carpet idea, but its initial realization only took the concept so far.”
Originally, the Kaplan Hall Lobby featured only a streamlined reception desk and a bookstore; the rest of the space, which has plate-glass windows that line the sidewalk, remained under-furnished and underused, merely something to pass through on the way to the galleries upstairs. Last year, the museum’s administrators hired FRCH to design a bar and restaurant. A new front desk and jewelry case were put on wheels, for easy moving during events, and the retail cabinet under the stair was lifted off the ground, “to allow the energy of urban carpet to flow beneath it,” Stapleton wrote. Several columns were wrapped in lights to augment the ambient lighting.
Meanwhile, the museum commissioned local light artist Matt Kotlarczyk to design two large-scale chandeliers. Assume Vivid Astro Focus, an internationally acclaimed art collective, executed a vivid environmental mural along a sidewall, and LED light artist Erwin Redl fashioned a grid of swinging lights in the 6-story stairwell, where the urban carpet goes vertical. Spanish-born, Italy-based Patricia Urquiola designed custom lounge furniture, and the Turkish design company Autoban provided non-custom furniture in the café, including communal tables. Area rugs were designed to play off the original vanishing points underlying Hadid’s design.
The installation and reprogramming has indeed drawn more people into the lobby during the day, but the foot traffic comes at a price: The aesthetic failure compromises a visitor’s introduction to the building and the art beyond. A space with an extraordinary aura has become ordinary.
The execution failed the laudable intentions. Although each of the artists has done strong work, the installations have been jammed together in an aesthetic brawl. The pieces embody too many languages in too small a space, and the mix of high and low—the haute architecture and the democratic wood-limbed furniture—clash, and not in an interesting way. The wood doesn’t agree with the abstraction of the overall space, while the painting is so aggressive that it declares war against everything within its orbit. The subtle light installation is lost in the cacophony, and the light columns are swamped. The widgets in the store leak out into the space, adding additional clutter.
Nothing builds on Hadid’s spare, abstract aesthetic, which, though robust, is strangely fragile. The interventions were intended to be artistic rather than architectural, presumably so as not to compete with Hadid’s mother ship, but distinctions blur without coalescing into a whole. It’s a museum yard sale that undercuts a visitor’s confidence in the judgment of the administrators.
The lapse in taste resulted from a failure of process. The museum's current director, Raphaela Platow, is several administrations removed from the original leadership, and so was subject to the institutional amnesia that often sets in as regimes succeed one another. According to a former project architect for Zaha Hadid Architects, Markus Dochantschi, Assoc. AIA, a little research would have revealed that the firm had originally done a series of exploratory designs for the lobby (and other levels) that included a café, food kiosk, restaurant, and bookshop. Because of tight budgets, only the reception desk was finished, so the lobby was left underdeveloped, pending further funding.
At the very least, the museum should have contacted Hadid’s office, to establish parameters for the project. In an email to me, Platow wrote: “For this iteration of a new layer of art work and design, we wanted to work with local talent and lots of local input from audiences, students, and focus groups, and ultimately test certain things we felt would really make a difference for how our guests desire to connect with the space.” In other words, focus groups and committees designed the space.
The unfortunate turn of events raises an issue of historically important contemporary buildings: Who owns them? At a certain point an architect hands over the keys to the client, but a moral imperative pertaining to the building’s authorship and artistic copyright should live on, especially if the building has achieved national prominence for its design. The directors of this non-collecting museum should have handled their only permanent work of art—the building itself—with curatorial respect.
The mistake has been made, but this sorry result could easily have been avoided. Crowds and architectural integrity are not mutually exclusive, certainly not in Hadid-designed buildings, which the architect purposely designs to cultivate an active public life. Hadid herself has done seating and carpets, so the museum could have simply ordered pieces that might have distilled the ideas of the building into the detail, while leaving breathing room for carefully curated and placed installations.
Fortunately, the damage is reversible, if expensive to undo: the art installations are not permanent, and the restaurant and café can be redesigned, perhaps according to Hadid’s original plans. Platow wrote that “We absolutely would welcome a future iteration with Zaha’s input.”
The museum plans to recast the space in about a year, so in the meantime, one hopes that the administrators seriously consider how they might restore the lobby’s original integrity. They can start by giving Hadid a call.
A prominent critic, journalist, author, teacher and architectural designer, Giovannini earned his master's degree at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design and runs his own practice, Giovannini Associates.