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Finding the Front Door

By Steve Ramos · July 14th, 2004 · Arts Beat
The front door is everything at London-based architect Zaha Hadid's new Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), a bold design that meshes concrete and glass into a postmodern structure that's more heavy than light, the source of its shocking beauty. The building, the Lois & Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, is beginning its sophomore year of operations. While people might be divided regarding the exhibitions or skeptical about the fiscal health of the CAC, they are drawn to the irregular space by what Hadid called the urban carpet, the perception of the city sidewalk overflowing into the CAC lobby and snaking upward through the museum floors.

Here's something Hadid told me after the building's groundbreaking three years ago: "What the building tries to do is show that the gates are open to everybody. It's not an exclusive space. It's in the downtown. It's on a prominent corner. It's transparent. There are no gates so to speak. The idea with the ground floor is that you can go in, look around and walk about ..."

The joy of public arts projects is that anyone (in fact, everyone) can pass by, watch and be engaged by the work. The best show so far at the new CAC, its best face, remains its construction, watching the geometric, concrete blocks stack up against its historical surroundings.

People felt connected to Hadid's building even before its doors opened, and this interaction continues to this day.

The polar opposite is true for the next major public arts project in Cincinnati, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a side-by-side mass of three pavilions which stand with its back on the city, its front facing the river on a makeshift road named E. Freedom Way.

Nobody doubts the political correctness of the Freedom Center's design. Architect Alpha Blackburn of Indianapolis' Blackburn Architects has revealed that her late husband and partner, Walter Blackburn, was the grandson of former slaves. But it's difficult to determine what Blackburn and BOORA Architects of Portland, Ore., were thinking when they envisioned a sloping paperweight of Italian travertine stone with its stark back walls facing downtown and passersby heading for the Reds' ballpark.

Unlike Hadid's CAC, which has become the face of downtown Cincinnati, the Freedom Center shows us its tiled ass, a gesture as uninviting as the surface parking lots that separate it from the hulking Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals to the west.

Views from downtown of the Roebling Suspension Bridge, the most beloved of Cincinnati landmarks, are gone, thanks to the Freedom Center's placement between Main and Walnut streets. In place of this picture postcard river view is Freedom's Ass.

What Freedom Center CEO and Executive Director Spencer Crew has in store for visitors on the museum's inside remains to be seen. Perhaps its exhibits and programming will more than compensate for what has become a brown heap of concrete and stone that by appearances will attract no one.

Meanwhile, later this week in Chicago, the great Midwest City of endless inspiration and envy, unveils its new Millennium Park, a lakefront space adjacent to Grant Park. The public arts attractions include the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a venue for outdoor concerts; the Crown Fountain, an installation by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa; and what is fast becoming the park's trademark piece, "Cloud Gate," a sculpture by India-born London based artist Anish Kapoor that resembles a giant, stainless steel bean.

Chicago's public artworks in Millennium Park are surrounded by gardens and walkways. There is a great lawn capable of holding thousands of people; it's evident from the excitement over the Chicago park, people will come in force. The same thing might be true for Cincinnati's Freedom Center when it opens in August. I just hope the visitors can find the front door.



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