Why Cincinnati Builds

One piece of advice from a new book worth reading, Deyan Sudjic's The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World, is that anyone working for a company about to construct elaborate ne

One piece of advice from a new book worth reading, Deyan Sudjic's The Edifice Complex: How the Rich and Powerful Shape the World, is that anyone working for a company about to construct elaborate new headquarters needs to seek employment elsewhere. Sudjic's theory is that companies on the downfall look to celebrity architects to return luster to their declining image. The same has proved true for political leaders (Saddam Hussein is a favorite example in Sudjic's book) and public institutions.

One fact worth noting: Sudjic is the architecture critic for England's The Observer. So he's not against good architecture from talented artists. In fact, the opposite is true — his passion is great architecture, especially in public spaces.

His core point is that egos determine what gets built and provide the reasons why we build. Building makes someone feel stronger and look important.

In Cincinnati, the Midwestern capital of low self-esteem, building is a cry for modern-day importance. It's proof that our glory days of 19th-century dominance during the steamboat era hasn't ended yet.

Building grand structures, especially on the riverfront for all to see, makes us feel grand. It also makes us desperate and foolhardy.

Cincinnati's changing riverfront is a legacy of glass, steel and stone that amount to sports stadiums that sit vacant most days, a museum to freedom with few visitors and an underused underground transit center.

The Cincinnati exception to the rule is that the egos that directly benefit from the buildings seldom pay for the grand construction. The public pays, despite little input in how the money is spent or whether the projects were necessary in the first place.

So far the brick and mortar has remade the Cincinnati riverfront into the Bermuda Triangle — a place where sports and cultural landmarks rise but the proposed new neighborhood gets swallowed in a black hole. The riverfront is where master plans and reputations go to wither, despite the egos that pushed the plans forward.

Like the company that looks to remake its image through a new headquarters, Cincinnati leaders head to the riverfront and Fountain Square with pick, shovel and a public relations agenda. Readers of The Edifice Complex would say that it's a sure sign of the city's further collapse — i.e., if a city has to remake its image through elaborate architecture, it's time for the creative people to move.

The glow is over at the Freedom Center and the Contemporary Arts Center, two organizations facing the challenges of operating such vast structures. Meanwhile, a fresh master plan for Cincinnati Art Museum expansion is under way with public forums.

What gets built? The Kroger parking garage and Paul Brown Stadium. Less ego-driven public works like new bicycle paths and mass transit remain on hold along with small boutique hotels and storefront art galleries.

There's no jet set in Cincinnati, but there are plenty of egos that use buildings as personal business cards. The connection between Cincinnati power and architecture is the idea that no one locally is all that powerful.

Add up all the money spent in the last few years, and Cincinnati still lacks anything as iconic as the Sydney Opera House, Los Angeles' Disney Hall or the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.

"Why build?" is the question all of Cincinnati should ask civic leaders who consistently ask us to fund their pet projects. God is the great architect of the universe, according to the Freemasons. But the truth behind what gets built and what doesn't is far less spiritual.

Contact steve ramos: sramos(at)citybeat.com

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