The University of Cincinnati’s Changing Landscape

Is UC’s campus still an architectural darling?

Take a stroll around the University of Cincinnati campus these days and it’s hard to miss the increased construction activity. Major renovations are wrapping up at the Fifth Third Arena and will begin soon at the Vontz Center for Molecular Studies and Calhoun Hall. Plus, the university is already constructing two brand new buildings from the ground up: the $120 million Lindner College of Business building and the $60 million Health Sciences building. In late July 2017, UC put out a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for a new campus master plan designer, the school’s first in nearly three decades.

Each of the projects are a big deal for the university, particularly the two new structures, considering the last new one was Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne’s Campus Recreation Center in 2006. Both are designed by international firms, which isn’t atypical, but upon closer inspection, they represent a notable departure from the school’s most renowned construction boom—the transformative and original master plan for the 1990s and early 2000s.

Illustration by Bob Scott


This time around there is no singular “Signature Architect” à la Peter Eisenman or Frank Gehry, no marshmallow-curved custom brick facades or leaky pastel-paneled buildings with difficult-to-navigate floorplans. Just a couple of new builds—sleek, visually interesting, and contemporary to be sure, but quiet compared to their predecessors—with some very utilitarian features (such as academic spaces that can be shared by multiple colleges).

UC’s architecture has received plenty of accolades over the past two decades. Do these new projects represent a shift in the university’s thinking on new construction and a hint at where any new master plan could be headed? Yes…and no. The answer is better understood within the context of history—more specifically, how and why UC ended up with such an architecturally significant campus in the first place. That story dates back three-plus decades, to the time when a university president with big dreams met a dean of architecture with a vision.


Architecture was not something University of Cincinnati President Joe Steger had studied formally, but he knew a campus in need of re-shaping when he saw one. After he became president in 1984, The Cincinnati Enquirer described “a Quonset hut from World War II sat where the bookstore now stands. [And] Old Tech, the building housing the geology department, had a crack in the wall so wide that students could put their arms through it. Stalactites hung from the crumbling ceiling. A hole in one floor was so big that a desk sank into it.”

But where others saw a decaying commuter campus with minimal pedestrian access, Steger saw promise—a phoenix begging to dust off the ashes. Rebuilding, Steger decided, was the way to start. “If we don’t have the facilities, faculty won’t come. If the faculty won’t come, the students won’t come,” he said in that same Enquirer story.

Steger shared his vision with Jay Chatterjee, a Harvard-educated architect who was then dean of UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, saying he wanted to start with one new building, a visitor’s center in the middle of campus. But Chatterjee knew a singular building wouldn’t be the best way forward. “I suggested to the president that we can’t just look at a building without looking at the surroundings,” he says.

The 1991 master plan’s premise was that UC’s campus would not be defined by constructing buildings, but rather by utilizing “open space as a form-giver.”

Chatterjee, seeing the forest for the trees, suggested Steger and other school administrators consider funding the design of a campus master plan instead. “I was looking for something unique,” says Chatterjee, who retired from UC in 2010 but still keeps an office on campus. “I didn’t want another university campus that looks like another university campus.” He eventually showed them samples drawn up by Harvard architecture students under the supervision of assistant professor George Hargreaves, whom UC had already hired to design the new visitor’s center.

It took a few years, but to Chatterjee’s delight, the visitor’s center idea lost momentum and the master plan idea took hold. UC was “experiencing a fair amount of growth” at the time, says Mary Margaret Jones, President and Senior Principal at Hargreaves Associates, who worked extensively with George Hargreaves on UC’s master plan. “Deans [were] actively raising money, needing to expand their colleges. They were looking at possibly 1 million square feet of new building coming down the pike.” According to UC’s former Vice President for Planning, Finance, and Community Development Dale McGirr, the deans were even fighting over building sites.

The school formally published an RFP (a public Request for Proposals from design firms) for master plan designs in 1989. Hargreaves submitted, but his approach was vastly different from the other applicants. Rather than taking a cookie-cutter college campus design and imposing it on the school, “Hargreaves said: ‘We sense that you don’t know who you are yet,’” recalls McGirr. “‘You’re going to have to squeeze out of your collective thinking who you are and where you’re going—an institutional philosophy and principle.’” The selection committee, which included both Chatterjee and McGirr, agreed. Hargreaves won the project.

He and Jones got right to work drafting the master plan; in 1991, the school officially adopted it. The premise was that UC’s campus would not be defined by constructing buildings, but rather by utilizing “open space as a form-giver,” says Jones—creating and protecting greenspaces and pedestrian areas, and then fitting the buildings around those. The plan would “create more open space and a pedestrianized campus, add or upgrade academic facilities, and establish more connectivity” throughout campus, said Ron Kull (who in 1990 became the school’s first campus architect) in a UC press release. Everything on the main, or “West” campus, would build off of one long pedestrian walkway stretching from Clifton to Martin Luther King (Main Street).

The unique—and ultimately controversial—part of the plan addressed Chatterjee’s goal of building an architecturally significant campus. It stipulated that, sprinkled in among the standard functional college buildings, there would be a handful of “foreground buildings.” The structures were to be designed “by significant-level national or international architects,” says Jones—a.k.a. “signature architects.”

Chatterjee had already paved the way for a state-funded school to hire out-of-state architects during the early 1990s when East Coast architect Peter Eisenman designed the renovations and addition for the Aronoff Center for Design and Art; Chatterjee and Ohio’s State Architect crafted an agreement wherein out-of-state architects could work on big government projects if they were paired with local firms, which would be designated as “Architects of Record.” The latter would receive the majority of the project’s allotted money and the former would receive the rest. The method is still widely used today.

UC’s first completed foreground structure under the master plan was David Childs’s Vera Clement Edwards Center (with local firm glaserworks), completed in 1992 at the corner of Corry Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue; second was the Engineering Research Center near Langsam Library in 1995. Constantine “Taki” Papadakis, who was dean of the engineering school at the time, was not entirely on board with the whole Signature Architect approach, but Chatterjee persisted, working to pair Papadakis with UC alum and pop-decor icon Michael Graves. Chatterjee knew the practical Papadakis would appreciate Graves’s post-modern designs, and he’d already received flak for not hiring Graves to design DAAP’s Aronoff Center. Chatterjee says he even gave Papadakis a magazine article praising Graves for bringing in buildings “on time and on budget.”

“[Chatterjee] was banging down the door,” according to McGirr, but Papadakis (and later others) felt like signature architects would sacrifice precious academic space in their buildings for “some fringy tower at the top,” says McGirr. “I said that’s not going to happen,” he recalls, and added, “By the way, you have to raise substantial fractions of [the cost of] these buildings from donors, and if you don’t have a donor night with major candidates over candlelight and chateaubriand and have this [architect] describe how [your new building] is going to transform the campus, you’re a dummy. Because that’s how you raise big-figure gifts.”

At one point UC was buying so many building materials, it bought a vein of limestone within a pit in Northern Ohio so it could control the supply.

Multiple architects submitted plans, but Graves ultimately ended up with the commission, and the industrial-looking building with a barrel-vaulted roof was completed with local partner firm KZF in 1995. Whether that McGirr pep talk primed Papadakis or the amiable but persistent Chatterjee just wore him down is unknown—Papadakis died in 2009.

There was a similar formula each time a school was slated for a new “foreground” building: Chatterjee acted as matchmaker, pairing deans with what he terms “thinking” or “academic” architects whose work he thought they’d appreciate, and McGirr stepped in as needed. The master plan was updated twice during that time frame, and UC ultimately constructed 2 million square feet of new “academic and research space,” plus 23 “active, open sites,” per a 2000 UC publicity document. This includes the plan’s largest greenspace—Campus Green, completed in 2000 on the site of the former Lot One—plus seven “foreground” structures, including Henry Cobb’s 1999 CCM campus with local firm NBBJ; Charles Gwathmey’s 2004 Tangeman University Center with GBBN; and Bernard Tschumi’s 2006 Richard E. Lindner Varsity Village with glaserworks. At one point, the school was purchasing so many building materials, “we bought a vein of limestone within a pit in Northwest Ohio so we could control the supply,” says McGirr.

UC was on the cutting edge as far as Chatterjee was concerned, who also believes the success of the master plan was closely tied to Steger’s 19-year tenure, which ended in 2003. The university drew praise from architecture critics at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. In 2010, Forbes listed UC’s campus among the most beautiful in the world. “When nobody was talking about UC,” says Chatterjee, “it was in every major architecture magazine and every major newspaper.”

Which was great, though not necessarily why administrators originally endorsed the master plan. “We had very specific reasons for doing this,” says McGirr. “Admissions, faculty recruitment, fund-raising—the metrics the board has to look at.

“We were losing to the suburbs and now we win the suburbs,” he adds. “We were losing as the second-place alternative in case you didn’t get into Ohio State. Now we have more Merit Scholars. People are not afraid of the dorm systems anymore. [And] admission—I think it’s now 10 years running—higher applications, higher admissions, and higher average test scores. Those are the metrics that matter, and they’re in a very good place. They’re to be protected.”


Like any ambitious redevelopment project, this one took its toll in multiple ways. By the time Mary Beth McGrew succeeded Ron Kull as campus architect in 2007, she “could feel the tension on campus. You can only drive a campus with a big architectural vision so long,” she says. Plus, UC’s debt schedule “was at its maximum capacity,” McGrew adds.

Keeping budgets in check was a challenge from the beginning. Dick Roediger, an architect at Lorenz & Williams, struggled with it during construction of the Aronoff Center. (Adding insult to injury, that same building would celebrate its 13th birthday with a major renovation and re-cladding due to water leaking from the exterior panels.) In 2015, The New York Times published a scathing article stating that UC was “$1.1 billion in debt—close to 20 percent more than it had in 2004—largely because of its construction boom,” and claiming that Aronoff Center renovations had cost $20 million ($19.25 million of which was borrowed). It also noted, however, that UC’s enrollment had increased “by nearly 30 percent” between 2004 and 2015.

Even as the 18-year-old Frank Gehry-designed Vontz Center for Molecular Studies currently undergoes the first step of $18 million worth of renovations, McGrew feels the major positives of the master plan remain clear. “You have to have a collective design or it’s a mess,” she says. As the campus matures, UC’s green spaces are not haphazard afterthoughts like you might see in “a bad suburban development,” says McGrew, but instead “shaped, urban.” Intentional. Somewhere, Hargreaves is smiling.

McGrew says the university just hired a firm to start the discussion of what changes might be in store for Hargreaves’s original plan. McGrew is also overseeing construction of those two new buildings: the 110,000-square-foot Health Sciences Building by Chicago’s Perkins & Will, and the 225,000-square-foot Lindner Business School building by Denmark’s Henning Larsen Architects (with KZF as architect of record), both of which are slated for completion by 2019. John Ronan Architects in Chicago is working on a concept design for a potential brand new, $30-million Alumni Center as well, but that project has been put on hold. Each offers some solid clues as to what the school’s next master plan might look like. All three firms are award-winning and highly respected, but gone are the days of a single “starchitect” taking charge of a whole project, or giving a theorist like Peter Eisenman free reign. “We [now] do a lot of the pre-design work in-house and give the designer a framework to work off of,” says McGrew, whose office has grown to include 53 staffers. This approach also controls costs.

Gone, too, are the days of purely foreground and background buildings. “You could only have Eisenman on a corner. You could only have Gehry on a corner because they don’t necessarily relate,” says McGrew. The new structures strike more of a happy medium.

In the end, certain facts are undeniable: UC is a thriving campus today compared to the bland, crumbling commuter campus it was when Steger became president 34 years ago—the school has had record-breaking enrollment for the last six years according to McGrew—and helped revitalize the surrounding (and drastically improved) bar, dining, retail, and housing options. “Our admissions people deserve the bulk of the credit, but there’s no doubt about it—our campus appeals to young people,” says McGrew. “Walking up Main Street is an experience like no other.”

Roediger, more than two decades removed from the Aronoff Center grand opening, agrees. “It changed the appearance of campus for the good,” he says of the original master plan. “Anybody can build a dumb box, but when you’re done, you’ve got a dumb box.”

Spoken like an architect after Chatterjee’s own heart.

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