The CAC’s First Floor Face-Lift

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When the new Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art opened in May 2003, the city threw itself a party, the museum’s lobby overflowing with excited supporters watching Charlie Luken cut a ribbon. Big-footprint critics lauded the instant landmark, tossing bouquets at the first American museum designed by a woman, not to mention the first American building designed by Iraq-born architect Zaha Hadid. “Her building puts the center on the international-architecture star map,” Paul Goldberger wrote in The New Yorker. The city was grateful for the new attention. Cincinnati had suffered through the whole Mapplethorpe unpleasantness during the ’90s, coming out of it with an international reputation as a town of fig-leafers and anti-modernists. But Hadid’s building was a statement, made by some very powerful board members and progressive elected officials, establishing a new reputation for the Cincinnati that would be—a cosmopolitan place open to the world.

The building itself embodied radical confidence. It bites down hard on the corner of Sixth and Walnut, a black and gray push-and-pull of cubes in svelte tones and materials interacting with the (admittedly mundane) buildings around it by announcing, quite loudly, I woke up like this. That can make for an icon, no doubt, but it can put people off, too. That latter group includes the museum’s current board, which championed a $1.1 million redesign of the Kaplan Hall lobby unveiled last month. Folks complained that the lobby needed food and coffee, as well as something to draw people through the front door—a door some can’t seem to find. To wit, there is now a 48-seat café, a larger gift shop, more walls, more art, and more lights. Director Raphaela Platow is spinning the changes as a deepening of Hadid’s vision: “I think Zaha provided a really good concept; she didn’t see it as her role maybe to bring it to life.” But Jim Stapleton, who oversaw the redesign as vice president of FRCH Design Worldwide, put it somewhat differently when he explained to The Cincinnati Enquirer, “You have to take the edge off the space.”

So which is it—an amplification of Hadid’s vision, or a correction? It would be great if the architect would clarify the issue herself, but her office hasn’t responded to repeated calls and e-mails for comment. In that gap, it’s worth noting that two years ago the CAC spread the word that Hadid was coming to town for the building’s 10th anniversary celebration, but the architect never materialized, and then the celebration became muted.

Friction was evident during a talk Hadid gave at the University of Southern California last fall where she seemed to badmouth Cincinnati. Whether it was the alterations that soured her or the installation of Nam June Paik’s 27-foot robot outside her masterpiece (a bit like SpongeBob photobombing Beyoncé), Hadid felt the right to play the victim.

“She has a reputation for being someone who challenges the people around her. I found Zaha to be incredibly invigorating to work with,” says Charles Desmarais, who was CAC director when the museum was built. “Certainly she tested us every step of the way.” At the same time, he notes, she did listen to certain suggestions and even overruled the advice of her own team on occasion. A central feature of her design was that lobby—envisioned, as Hadid once put it, as an “urban carpet,” a flat, gently sloping concrete ribbon that pulled pedestrians off the sidewalk. From the Constructivist staircase she built at the rear, you could peer through the glass windows and see the city plain.

“It’s a great metaphor, but it never materialized—she left the space pretty much to its own devices,” says Platow. “She didn’t put anything in it to create hospitality. It was just a wide open space, pretty dark.” Platow knows there may be talk—who is Cincinnati to go against the Master?—but she also knows better than to finesse the point. “We inhabit this building. We respect this building, we love this building,” she says. “But we are also the ones who know how we need to use it.”

Ten years after he first rhapsodized the building, Paul Goldberger is still smitten. But he admits, “even the best buildings can evolve and change.

“Perhaps it’s a fulfillment [of Hadid’s intentions] and perhaps it is not,” he adds. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as life intervenes and certain concepts are not always practical going forward. It’s just unfortunate that she’s not overseeing whatever changes are being made.”

Originally published in the April 2015 issue.

Photo Illustration by John Ueland.

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