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Back To School

By Sarah Stephens · September 19th, 2007 · Cincitecture
  The Steger Student Life Center is but one of many recent additions to UC's campus.
Andrew Higley/ University of Cincinnati

The Steger Student Life Center is but one of many recent additions to UC's campus.

Ah, back to school -- the most glorious time of the year for the college student.

Not too long ago, the University of Cincinnati's campus was more of an eyesore than an architectural wonder, but times have changed, my friends. If it's been a while since you've visited the campus, you're in for a shock. This installment of Cincitecture will serve as a walk-through of UC's architectural composition, as devised under the "Master Plan."

The most basic goal of this Master Plan, conceived in 1989 and headed by landscape architect George Hargreaves, was to transform what was once a largely commuter college into a thriving nexus of student activity, creating a vibrant, bustling campus life. The first phase of the plan instituted the Signature Architects Program, which employed a series of "starchitects" to thrust UC into the international scene.

Indeed, they did not fail to provide the university with a series of monumental, press-garnering structures such as Michael Graves' Engineering Research Center, Peter Eisenman's Aronoff Center for Design and Art and Frank Gehry's Albert H.

Vontz Center for Molecular Studies. Yet even with these prestigious additions, the campus was still lacking the desired sense of cohesion.

From the late 1990s on, the second phase of the Master Plan endeavored to reinvent the bustling feel of an Italian Hill town with a contemporary vision. According to Hargreaves' Web site, "The plan reasserts the campus as an active pedestrian precinct conducive to human interaction, study and play and recognizes that the physical environment strongly influences the educational experience."

Such aspects are seen in the undulating hills and serpentine paths of the Campus Green, leading into the recently completed Main Street area, including the Campus Recreation Center, Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center, Tangeman University Center and the University Pavillion. The verdant, haphazardly intersecting hills of the Campus Green not only seem to spill across the street from neighboring Burnet Woods but also mimic the Ohio valley's ancient earthworks. A huge conical mound, a mini-arboretum and a series of limestone steps provide a serene place of respite from busy Martin Luther Kind Boulevard.

Entering campus from this gateway leads directly into the dynamic Main Street. The subdued palate mirrored in the Rec and Steger Centers is unexpectedly eye-catching. Metals, aluminum and concrete abound in demure bluish-gray hues with the occasional red brick accent, enabling viewers to concentrate on form and structure. Such colors, along with soft interior and exterior lighting, make a striking impression at twilight. Designed by Pritzker award winner Thom Mayne, the Rec Center was admittedly the "most complicated building" he ever designed, referring to it as five buildings in one. At once home to a gymnasium, aquatic center, classrooms, student housing and more, there is no single ideal vantage point. Mayne aimed for a sense of transparency that relates to the "social interconnectivity of this cosmopolitan space."

Speaking of social connectivity, architects from Moore Ruble Yudell and Glaserworks designed the Steger Student Life Center, which was recently named one of the world's 11 most notable buildings by the American Institute of Architects, with its neighbors in mind. This crescent-shaped structure, a mere 40-feet wide, both echoes the forms of nearby buildings and simultaneously offers a unique departure with its "sharp angles and emphatic changes in grade."

The Chicago Tribune has described the drastic changes to UC's campus as "one of the most significant acts of campus planning since Thomas Jefferson laid out his 'academic village' at the University of Virginia."

With its intriguing blend of old and new, as well as its pedestrian-friendly "Italian hill town" aesthetic, UC's masterful achievements in architectural and landscape design have created quite an extraordinary campus experience.

For more info on UC's art, architecture and landscape tour, visit www.uc.edu/community/campusguide.beat.com.


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