A Unique Red Stairway Helps Connect UC’s Sprawling Campus

A lot of thought went into the roller-coaster-like design in the brand new Clifton Court Hall classroom building. Students are figuring out how to best navigate it.
Clifton Court Hall’s central red stairway is now open.

Photograph by Andrew Higley

The University of Cincinnati’s new “great red stairway” is the surprising centerpiece of the $93-million, 192,000-square-foot Clifton Court Hall, which has opened for full student use this semester. The building’s immediate function is to provide appealing space for seven College of Arts and Sciences programs; its location is down a hill from the main campus’s 1948 Arts and Sciences Hall, which will remain in use. The main entrance is on Clifton Avenue across from the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP).

“Stairs are often a means to connect things,” says Susan Lowance, the architect who led the design programming and planning efforts on Clifton Court Hall for Seattle-based LMN. “But this kind of stair is actually an end. It has its own clear identity, and moving through it has a very specific feeling. So it’s a kind of destination in itself.”

Unlike other impressive Cincinnati steps, such as the Art Museum’s Art Climb or the public Mt. Adams Steps, the red stairway is completely indoors. It’s also modest in its reach—traveling only from the five-story (plus basement) new building’s first floor to its third. And it isn’t alone; there are other stairways in the building. But it is unique. With its bright “blaze” color, its roller-coaster-like turns in direction, its stylish perforated side panels and overhead “gates” that might make you think you’re on a bridge, the red stairway is a veritable art object—an imaginative steel sculpture.

It’s important to mention here that the building is ADA compliant with elevators and flat interior passageways. And it has three stairless entrances/exits on three different floors, possible because of the way the building meets the hillside rising to its south. The red stairway leads to the third-floor entrance/exit.

Besides being functional for students with classes in Clifton Court Hall, there is a larger purpose to the red stairway. UC wants the building to bring together some disparate parts of the growing campus, thus encouraging students to think of the university’s physical layout as an aesthetically pleasing, organic whole.

In recent years, UC converted the vacant Second Church of Christ Scientist, across Clifton Avenue from the new Clifton Court Hall, into Probasco Auditorium (and classrooms). The new DAAP Studio Annex was located a bit northwest from that. Clifton Court Hall relates to both. “The main intent of this building is to connect the portions of the expanding campus, connect campus with the larger community on Clifton, and connect different departments within Arts and Sciences that were all spread out,” says Mary Kate Genis, the architect who handled day-to-day project management for KZF Design, the local architect of record for Clifton Court Hall. She holds a master’s degree in architecture from UC. (Genis credits the project’s vision to UC architect John Seibert, who declined an interview request, citing a busy schedule.)

The red stairway plays a crucial part in realizing this broader intent. It’s not just for use of those with business in Clifton Court Hall, but also as a fun route to get from the school’s northwest sector to the main campus. It’s a clever conduit.

The stairway isn’t the only visual delight of the Clifton Court Hall project. The interior is designed to be appealing, and the facade has a rustic yet modernist appeal with its earthy terracotta panels and prominent windows. Outside, pedestrian-oriented landscaping and a dramatic new bridge allow people to move easily between the building’s third-floor entrance/exit to Arts and Sciences Hall and beyond.

Clifton Court Hall houses programs in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Photograph by Andrew Higley

UC just recently started its fall semester, and the building’s grand opening celebration is scheduled for September 19—so the jury is still out on its success. But one user has already weighed in. Arts and Sciences Interim Associate Dean Margaret Hanson provided her thoughts via email: “The interior of Clifton Court Hall is simply breathtaking and provides dramatic views for those working or taking classes in the building. But it also provides an extraordinary view to those simply walking through the building. The large and numerous windows and internal glass, including a windowed central ceiling, allow natural light to penetrate nearly all parts of the building, including offices and classrooms.”

Incidentally, there is a special reason architects chose red once they decided they wanted a bold color for the stairway. “It’s one of the school colors,” says Mark Reddington, the LMN Design Partner-In-Charge for this project and also holder of an undergraduate architecture degree from UC. The school’s official red and black colors were established by student government in 1892. “There are other campuses we’re working on where the school colors would be stupid to use on an architectural level, but red is pretty cool,” Reddington says. “It worked out really well here.”

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