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October 30, 2012, by Lauren Della Bella

Is the Safe Choice the Right Choice?

Recently, I attended a conference at the University of Cincinnati on Surfaces.  The conference was put together to honor Jay Chatterjee the former dean of the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) and the orchestrator of UC’s Campus Master Plan and building renaissance (not to mention one of my own planning professors).  Many of the signature architects responsible for various new and renovated buildings attended the conference including Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves.   Eisenman was responsible for redesign and expansion of the DAAP building where the conference was held.  Graves designed the Engineering Research Center.  Michael Graves is a UC alumni, arguably the most famous and most decorated of any architectural graduate.  He was not selected to design DAAP, which by his own admission left him heartbroken.

I have never been a fan of the Eisenman building.  It was over budget, poorly constructed (now requiring a complete re-skinning) and frankly I just don’t understand the floor plan.  But more than anything I don’t understand the choice of Eisenman over Graves.    Eisenman was selected with minimal experience; in fact all he brought to his interview was a point of view.    When you are one of the best architectural schools in the country, why not select one of your own to design the building?  What message does it send to the students of the program if even the best of your graduates isn’t good enough to re-design their school?  The only answer I can come up with is that Eisenman was the more daring choice and Graves felt safe.

This is something that every architecture firm confronts at one time or another.  You may be pre-eminent in your craft, sought after even, but in your own backyard you are often “just the local firm” and someone from out of town must be the better or more daring choice.  Maybe yours is the firm that wants to listen to the client, what they think, what they value, and instead they select the firm with preconceived notions because it feels more exciting at the time.

Excitement in the moment doesn’t always translate into excitement at the end.  If your budget is $20M and it costs $40M and then requires a $10M façade renovation 15 years later because in the architect’s own words “there wasn’t enough budget to begin with”, is it worth the momentary excitement?  I would argue that good design goes beyond the aesthetic and the plan and meets the clients’ needs for short and long-term use, budget, schedule and on-going operation and maintenance.  Architecture should capture the imagination, it should cause a conversation, even a controversy, but it should also solve problems and consider not only first cost, but also total cost.  To teach our students less than that does not serve them well, especially in this economy.

At the conference Eisenman said he only likes working on the plan, not the surfaces.  He also said when he and Graves worked together on competitions; Graves always had the whole vision.  So why didn’t UC have the vision to look in DAAP’s own backyard and see that sometimes the safe choice is the right choice?