Edifice Complex

When it hired avant-garde architect Zaha Hadid to design its new building, the Contemporary Arts Center took a big leap into the unknown.

Late one Wednesday afternoon, just two and a half months before the new Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art is to open, a small group of local media gathers for a first look. I can’t wait to get inside this building I’ve been hearing about for nearly seven years. I am especially eager for my first glimpse of the “urban carpet,” the concrete floor that is one of London architect Zaha Hadid’s primary design elements, created to pull people off the street into the museum. As I slap on a hard hat and step through the construction debris field that is the main lobby, the carpet is beneath my feet, running toward the rear wall.

Suddenly, any preconceptions I might have about concrete don’t apply. Forget the flat slab, or a surface so rigid it seems it will break if bent, because that is just what the north wall does: In a concrete continuum, the floor flows from the outside sidewalk across the lobby, then curves upward to become the far wall.

In many ways this rolling carpet of concrete is a metaphor for what the Contemporary Arts Center has achieved in building this new museum: the impossible. It is difficult to imagine a harder sell than dropping an avant-garde building by one of the world’s most talked-about architects smack in the middle of a tradition-bound Midwestern city—a city where plenty of people recall the 1990 Mapplethorpe trial and the institution at its epicenter. Yet, at a cost of $35.6 million (including land, construction and endowment), the new museum is a reality. We head to the top floor, and as we zigzag our way back down around workers and scaffolding, every turn proves that—like the use of concrete on the main floor—the usual assumptions about ceilings, walls, surfaces, even gravity itself, can be shelved.

From the moment the design was unveiled in the summer of 1998 it generated buzz in the architecture world far beyond the borders of Cincinnati. New York Times writer Herbert Muschamp hailed it as a “breakthrough design” and praised Cincinnati for “giving this remarkable architect her first commission in the United States.” During the next few weeks, reporters, critics and architects from around the country will tour the building and ask the question: Has Hadid indeed created something new and significant?

But there is another question equally relevant to those of us who live here. How did a relatively small organization take on this high-stakes venture and see it through to the end? The story of that process offers lessons in how to encourage innovation and how to make it real. It’s also the story of how a group of people were willing to bear enormous risks to achieve their goal. In the end, their victory has a lot to teach us about determination and success.

The fact is, talk of moving the CAC began a dozen years ago. The problem wasn’t an issue of space as much as visibility; the galleries were set above the Walgreen’s on Fifth Street, tucked away from everyday view. Two different plans were floated. The first, in the early 1990s, involved recycling part of the former Ohio College of Applied Science on Central Parkway (now the Emery Center Apartments); the other, in the mid-1990s, moving the CAC to the basement of the new Aronoff Center for the Arts (now the Weston Art Gallery). Neither plan got very far. But the concept did not go away—rather, it grew, for in the end, the CAC took the most ambitious route of all, a new building.

“Any number of people could claim that they had the idea [for a new building],” says CAC director Charles Desmarais. Still, there were key people who propelled the discussion of a new space. They were people of influence—and of considerable wealth, in some cases—and all shared a passion for the arts. Some had been involved with the CAC for decades; others were newcomers.

To list them one must begin with the “Stan factor,” Dr. Stanley Kaplan and former Ohio Senate President Stanley Aronoff. Both had key conversations with director Desmarais in late 1995, not long after the Aronoff Center for the Arts opened.

Desmarais recalls walking down Sixth Street with Aronoff when the senator remarked, “You know, now that we’ve finished with that”—indicating the new arts center—“it’s time to do something for you.” By we, he meant the state of Ohio and the financial contribution it might make toward such a project. So was he serious or just being nice to the new arts guy in town? Desmarais asked Alice Weston, an acquaintance of Aronoff’s and a member of the CAC executive committee, to call and find out. He was serious. And there was a precedent for his offer. When the CAC had considered relocating to the Central Parkway site, the state had pledged $5 million toward the project. The money, of course, evaporated when that plan collapsed.

Around the same time Aronoff extended state help, Stan Kaplan, then president of the CAC board of trustees, came to the offices excited after spotting a For Sale sign on the property at Sixth and Walnut streets. “I think that’s where we should build,” he told Desmarais. The completion of the Aronoff Center for the Arts had made the block of Walnut between Sixth and Seventh streets the city’s new entertainment district, and Kaplan and his wife, Mickey, already were vested there. They had been major donors to the Aronoff Center; its midsize venue, the Jarson-Kaplan Theatre, bears their name. A new museum could be a major destination for art lovers already flocking to the Aronoff to see theater and dance. New restaurants and bars also were drawing people. Suddenly what CAC trustees had always talked about in “someday” terms seemed a viable idea.


CAC trustee James Fitzgerald, then CEO of FRCH Design Worldwide, did some initial site studies and determined that a new building at Sixth and Walnut would cost a minimum of $15 million dollars. It was time to see if there was interest beyond the organization itself, because any possibility of a new museum depended on tapping sources beyond the pockets of CAC’s usual donors.

At this point, Desmarais had been on the job about a year. During that time he had crossed paths with a lot of influential people, but one person he hadn’t yet met was Mayor Roxanne Qualls. He set up a lunch, and Stan Kaplan went along. “Frankly there was a smirk on her face when I told her about the project and said we’d like the city to put up $5 million,” Desmarais recalls. Qualls did offer to promote the idea of city funding—but only if the CAC could raise the first $5 million dollars in private donations. In short, she was challenging the CAC to prove itself.

There at the table, Kaplan announced that he and his wife would give the first million. Challenge accepted.

His largesse was a powerful signal to others, and within three months, a small group, including Alice and Harris Weston, Dorothy Reed, Lois and Dick Rosenthal, Otto Budig, and Lynne Myers Gordon made up the rest. Desmarais promised each one that they would be released from their pledges if the city decided not to match them. “Stan Kaplan was such a key person early on,” Desmarais says. “He gave money, he raised money, he lobbied with politicians. It could not have happened without Stan.”

With lobbyist Dick Weiland opening doors and making introductions, Desmarais, Kaplan and others visited each Cincinnati City Council member. “We described what an economic catalyst the museum could be for that corner of the city, and what it could mean to have this great work of architecture downtown,” Desmarais says. By focusing on the city’s benefits instead of the CAC’s needs, City Hall began to see the opportunities. In the end, Councilman Charlie Winburn—one of the city’s most conservative elected officials—proposed that the city contribute $5 million, and the council unanimously approved funding. The CAC contingent had made similar connections at a state level with the help of Dick Finan—another Cincinnatian—who had replaced Aronoff as Ohio Senate president. That personal touch convinced elected officials that a new museum could be a major economic force for downtown.

Another key figure was a new CAC trustee, Cinergy Foundation President Joe Hale, who moved to town from Indianapolis. Hale had met Desmarais shortly after both arrived in the city. During their very first conversation, Hale complained how difficult it was to find the museum.

Hale’s passion for contemporary art, his corporate connections and strong feelings about downtown made him the logical choice for chairman of the capital campaign. It would quickly become a job that tested his fund-raising mettle. Over the next few years, as the project was designed and the land purchased, the original estimate of $15 million rose to $21 million, then to $25 million, then $30 million, finally reaching $35.6 million. “When it reached $25 million, I started sweating,” Hale admits. “Then there was this extraordinary meeting with the Rosenthals in the summer of 1999 when they said they wanted to increase their gift to ensure the museum would be built.”

Dick and Lois Rosenthal, who had given one of the first million-dollar donations, kicked in another $4 million and, later, another million, bringing their total to $6 million. As the largest donors, their names would go on the building. Most of the original donors would significantly increase their pledges one or more times as well.

Once it became clear the financial commitments were there to pursue the project, Desmarais began to advance the idea that a new building should be something truly special. Unlike major art museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the CAC does not have a permanent collection to showcase. Some might see this as a limitation, but Desmarais saw it as the license to break away from the “backdrop” approach to museum building—the neutral white box for displaying art—and give the city something much closer in spirit to the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “That building interacts with the art as you move through it,” Desmarais explains.

The process of selecting an architect departed from tradition as well. A common route is a competition, in which architects submit proposals. Although some CAC donors early on had definite ideas about who the architect should be, Desmarais asked everyone to table such thoughts and approach the selection from another perspective. “I said we should first ask, how do you make great architecture, not who should the architect be.” The question was put up for discussion on May 17, 1997, when the CAC hosted a free public symposium. Paul Goldberger, then Chief Cultural Correspondent for the New York Times and the nation’s leading architectural voice, was the keynote speaker. “The museum is an essential tool in the making of [a city’s] downtown,” he said, “ a critical element in the shaping of urban identity.”

Around 200 participants that day weighed in on the question. The thinking was broad and big, with merely one caveat: the building had to be a symbol of the CAC’s key values—innovation, diversity and free inquiry.

Through ads in industry publications and personal letters, architects were invited to submit resumes and a list of completed projects. An advisory committee of architectural experts from around the country was assembled to help with the process, which became, for Desmarais and the trustees, a sort of intense seminar in contemporary design.

Ninety-seven architects from around the world responded. From the moment resumes began to arrive, favorites emerged, but Desmarais gives the selection committee a lot of credit for remaining flexible. “There was a fair amount of push and pull,” he admits. Those involved say a key factor during this time was Desmarais’s ability to keep a group of independent thinkers focused on the goal: to get an architect who could give them an exciting building. “Charles helped us see that we could take a safe route and get, say, Frank Gehry’s next building,” Hale explains, “Or we could get that architect who was poised to build his first important building.” The group was leaning toward the latter.

The field was narrowed to 12 architects, and nine eventually were brought to town on the same weekend to be wined, dined and extensively interviewed. Three—Bernard Tschumi of New York, Berlin’s Daniel Liebeskind (who recently landed the World Trade Center site commission) and Zaha Hadid—were chosen as finalists.

But so far, no one had looked at any architecture. Trustees Kaplan, Fitzgerald, Gordon, Dorothy Reed, the Westons and Desmarais flew to Europe to see the finalists’ completed works. They also would make visits to each architect’s office to meet the staff and see how they worked together. During the often frantic five-day, six-country tour, Desmarais kept a diary:

January 17, 1998, Delta Air Lines Crown Room: Our itinerary is timed to the hour and each hotel and dining reservation has been plotted on a map showing the coordinates of our next appointment.

January 18, Office of Zaha Hadid, Bowling Green Lane, London: The room is filled to capacity with young, intense people at computers, all dressed in the black uniform of the hip designer. Hadid’s flat in Kensington, later that evening: She sends an assistant out for Indian food, so that we can discuss some specifics of her approach to the CAC project. “It’s a box situation,” she says. “How can you begin to release the site from the requirements of the box?”

January 19, Le Fresnoy, studio national des arts contemprains, Tourcoing, France: “The first actual building we will see on our trip is Bernard Tschumi’s national contemporary art studio. Bernard is in town from New York and will lead the tour himself. The effect is of a giant jungle gym for adults. “My work is about moving through space” [he tells the group]. Chez Julien, Paris: We have been joined for dinner by Peggy Crawford, one of the three women who, as kids fresh out of college in 1939, founded the Modern Art Society, now the Contemporary Arts Center.

January 21, A van en route from Tegel Airport, Berlin: Daniel Libeskind’s wife and business manager Nina has collected us from the airport and is taking us directly to the site of the Jewish Museum, now nearing completion. There is no entrance to the new Jewish Museum visible from the street.The entire structure is lacerated with great gashes, cuts in the skin that serve as the only windows. There is so much symbolism loaded into this great museum structure that I can hardly begin to catalog it.

January 23, Delta Flight 711, New York to Cincinnati: Fitzgerald, the careful one, gives voice to our good fortune and to the dilemma we now face: “I’m convinced that any one of them will give us a great building.”

But after the trip, the trustees were at a stalemate. Each finalist had his or her champions. “We couldn’t come to consensus about whom we wanted,” Desmarais says. It was a critical juncture, but once more the Kaplans stepped forward, offering additional money to the architects to make a visual presentation about how each would approach the project. “We said, don’t draw a building, but of course, they all drew a building,” Desmarais says, smiling.

In the end, they chose Zaha Hadid, viewed by most outsiders as the most problematic choice the CAC could have made. Hadid had a reputation for being difficult to work with. Developers considered her buildings impractical to construct. She had accepted a number of commissions in Europe that were ultimately never completed. There was concern among some Jewish trustees, too, who wondered if their friends would give to a building being designed by an Arab woman. “I love that they openly discussed it, and that in the end, it didn’t matter,” Desmarais says.

But what mattered was that Hadid presented the most dynamic proposal. “Her drawings and sketches weren’t the easiest thing in the world to understand,” Hale says. “But Charles gave us a sense of comfort that she could produce the building we were all dreaming about.” In choosing Hadid, the CAC also was following a trend established over the past 20 years by San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. All three cities had given foreign architects their first major U.S. commissions to build new museums of modern art, all located in the heart of downtown.

The first chance to see Hadid’s design came in November 1998, when she unveiled it to a capacity crowd at the Jarson-Kaplan Theatre, explaining the concept in detail and walking the crowd through the 65,000-square-foot, seven-story space. Many could only describe it as a jigsaw puzzle of metal, glass and concrete, and everyone agreed there was little conventional about the building, from its sloping floors to the use of materials. John Senhauser, a local architect and member of the city’s Urban Design Review Board, told the Enquirer, “It will require extraordinary attention to craft and detail, by the designer and the constructor, to demonstrate the lyrical quality of [Hadid’s] work.” That would prove to be true, and merely one of the major challenges the CAC would have to confront.

The truth is, if it hadn’t been for the trustees’ enthusiasm for a new museum, and Desmarais’s ability to convince them any challenge could be dealt with, the project could have collapsed numerous times along the way.

Despite the For Sale sign that Kaplan had spotted in late 1995, securing the land for the building became one of the major issues of the entire project. Owners, tenants, the CAC and the city negotiated, bargained and compromised for months before a deal was struck—shortly before groundbreaking in May 2001. There also were the rising costs once Hadid began to work. The design was altered several times, with the original 65,000 square feet growing to 85,000. Donors who gave generously from the start were asked to pony up several times. Still, Hale distinctly remembers the momentum that begin to build with the national buzz, first with Muschamp’s article in The New York Times and others in the Los Angeles Times, Elle, ARTnews and Vogue. “Suddenly we had all this international attention,” he says. By the time the building opens, what had been a few dozen major contributors will have grown to more than 200 who’ve given $10,000 and above. “We became such a success story, and people wanted to invest in a success story,” Hale says.

The CAC could have pursued a safer—and perhaps less expensive—route by building a “container” building, one whose function was merely to showcase the art exhibited there. It could have given the community another building with no more ambition than many of the structures added to downtown in the past two decades. But it’s not surprising this group of dreamers and freethinkers chose to do otherwise.

Will the new CAC become an economic force to catapult that portion of downtown into a new era of prosperity? Has Cincinnati managed to get the first U.S. work by one of the great architects of the 21st century? Those answers lie in the future. What can be said is that the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art is proof that collaborative thinking and the will to take a risk and stick with it can happen in a tradition-bound Midwestern city. Step onto the urban carpet and see for yourself.

Originally published in the May 2003 issue.
Photograph by Ryan Kurtz.

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