At the University of Cincinnati, top architects get a strong request from the students. Will the twenty-first-century campus give us what Aretha Franklin asked for?

I first visited the University of Cincinnati several years ago when the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) held its annual conference there. We were holed up in Peter Eisenman’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning—spending a couple of claustrophobic days in auditoriums that felt as if they were designed to discourage easy dialogue between audience and speaker. I noticed this problem of architecture-induced segregation, but what struck me first was the grand aloofness of the building—its star quality. (I was still a fan of such bravado then.) I admired the sprawling staircase, the light-drenched classrooms, the rough-and-ready use of simple materials, the dramatically colliding forms. Although the interiors had a slightly worn look, I was ready to love them, to embrace this stellar architecture. Then I saw the conference signage made by the graphic-design students.

The large panels looked angular and attractive from a distance, in tune with the angularity and drama of the building. The trouble was that the conference attendees had to walk up close to the signs to find out where they were directing us. And there was so much layering of color—so much formal expression—that even then the words were hard to read. I was willing to forgive this flaw, thinking that the students were enthralled by their powerful surroundings. But as I headed for one of the sessions, I ended up in the basement—twice. I then realized that wayfinding in the building was minimal or nonexistent. Somehow the strong lines of the architecture were supposed to tell me where I was going—and, hell, how dumb could I be to land in the boiler room?

My feelings of inadequacy were so vivid that I started having flashbacks to all the times when an object, place, sign, or building made me feel dumb. But I am not dumb! Why did the designed environment make me feel that way? Because no one thought of what I would like, how I see things, what kinds of clues I’d need to find my way. Like you, I’m a person first and a design fan second. And it is the person in me that was made small, unimportant, and confused.

As I read Steve Litt’s revelatory story on the new human-centered buildings going up on the Cincinnati campus, I am happy to note a significant shift in architects’ attitudes away from the mysteriously artful to the respectfully beautiful. Respect for others, it seems, is becoming the new mantra in all segments of the design community. And so it is for the three firms, stars in their own right, who have decided to pay attention to what the users of the Cincinnati campus asked for. When the students told them to make a front door, to create a sense of arrival, and to work toward achieving connectivity, the architects listened and collaborated with each other to create a public space for the people who use it. Collaboration and connectivity—we may be on to something.

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