Michael Bierut | Essays

What’s That Crashing Sound, Or, Eisenman in Cincinnati

The Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the University of Cincinnati by Eisenman Architects. Photo by J. Miles Wolf

In September, 1975, I arrived at the University of Cincinnati to study graphic design at what was then called the College of Design, Architecture and Art (DAA). I had decided to become a graphic designer without ever having met one; I had decided to study at DAA without ever having visited it. The day I moved into my dorm room was overcast and drizzly. A funny smell hanging in the air turned out to be the cooking of Ivory Soap; P&G's giant Ivorydale plant was just upwind of us.

Sometime later, thumbing through a guide to colleges — God knows why; it was too late to do anything about it — I discovered that I had chosen to spend five years in a place that many considered the ugliest college campus in America.

High in the hills of Clifton above downtown Cincinnati, the University had assembled by the mid-seventies a collection of buildings almost heartbreaking in their banality. There was some halfhearted collegiate gothic (Memorial Hall), third-rate colonial revival (McMillan), heavy-handed neoclassicism (Wilson Auditorium) and a remarkably unpoetic Louis Kahn knockoff, Crosley Tower. I myself lived in a ghastly, nine-year-old, 27-story glass tower called Sander Hall that was both airless and soulless and that would be imploded, in the style of Pruitt-Igoe, shortly after my tenth reunion.

The design school complex was more of the same. The older part dated from the late 50s: a pair of connected Suburban Modern buildings, Alms (1953) and DAA (1958), approached via a footbridge that would shortly be overshadowed by Corbu's at Carpenter Center. Connecting to them from the east was Wolfson, DAA's brand new homage to Paul Rudolph, a grim exercise in brutualism that, like many things in Cincinnati, had arrived 10 years too late. All three buildings sat at odd angles to each other that seemed as careless as everything else on campus.

In was in this ensemble that I would spend most of my waking hours for the next five years. The design school, then as now, housed an admirable range of disciplines: architecture, planning, industrial design, fashion design, interior design, and graphic design. I was impressed and somewhat intimidated by the students in the other fields. The industrial designers seemed to be guys from Kentucky who liked to draw cars and were pleased to discover you could major in this in college; they were also good at using power tools. The fashion designers were beautiful TaB-addicted Miss Indianas who, even en charrette at two in the morning looked ready to don tiaras, hop on floats, and deploy blinding smiles. And so on.

The architects, naturally, dwelt at the top of the pecking order. It is ever thus. But there was a delicious irony in this, for their position entitled them to a dubious honor: the occupation of the newly built Wolfson Building. This was desirable only in theory, as the new addition turned out to be soul-crushingly Orwellian. Meanwhile, the quarter-century-old DAA building, where we designers lived, was careworn and cheery by comparison. The architects were trapped in concrete boxes. We designers were surrounded by big banks of dirty windows looking out on Burnett Woods, battered full-height movable walls covered in graffiti, and an endless supply of industrial four-legged metal stools in various states of deterioration.

It was one of these stools that caught our attention late one bleary night. Finding a good one was always a challenge. Years of hard use had rendered many of them wobbly and worse. Several were unusable and, one might conclude upon examination, actually dangerous. I forget who said it first: "You know, we should just put this thing out of its misery before it hurts someone." Nor do I remembered who said what followed: "Yeah, we should just drop it down the Wolfson stairwell."

So it came to be that a half dozen of us were stationed in along the multiple landings of the Wolfson stairwell, the windowless six-story volume that was the fulcrum between the shambles of the DAA Building and its harsh addition. A volunteer carried the doomed stool up to the top floor. The others stood to view the event from various angles and, thoughtfully, to make sure no stranger chose that moment to come along and stick their head over the handrail. I was in my fourth year. It was two in the morning. The stool was suspended over the void. Countdown and release. Utter silence as each of us glimpsed the silvery blur falling downward past our landing. And then, an explosive, ear-splitting crash, far louder than any of us would have predicted, one that seemed to reverberate off the concrete walls for minutes. It was physically transporting. It was better than sex. None of us spoke as we carried the mangled piece of metal, nearly twisted beyond recognition, out to the dumpster by the Wolfson loading dock, and tenderly set it to rest. We were still a little shaken from the experience.

We would reprise this event only one or two more times: it was too thrilling to make a regular event out it, plus there was a finite supply of stools. But how pleasing it was to bring violent life to the design school complex! How great it was to find a use for the battered furniture of DAA, and, better still, the sterile, panopticon-like stairwell of the gruesome Wolfson building! And: how great was that crashing sound?

Less than a year after my graduation, as if by some prearranged signal, the University of Cincinnati undertook the first of a series of planning projects under DAA Dean Jay Chatterjee that would completely transform the campus. George Hargreaves and Associates devised a pedestrian-driven master plan, Chatterjee instituted what is now referred to bluntly as the Signature Architect Program, and the University of Cincinnati at last acquired some decent buildings by architects who liked their signatures writ large and unmistakable. Alumnus Michael Graves contributed a robust engineering building; Harry Cobb, the elegant College Conservatory of Music; Frank Gehry, the rather charming Vontz Center for Molecular Studies; and Thom Mayne, the university's remarkable new recreation center.

But the centerpiece is Peter Eisenman's transformation of the DAA complex, The Aronoff Center for Design and Art, housing the renamed School of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP). "What is that thing?" was the headline of a story on the building in the March 2000 issue of the university alumni magazine, and indeed the Aronoff Center is by far the campus's most provocative newcomer. It was baffling to many: that same issue of the UC magazine took pains to debunk a litany of "rumors" that included "There are no square rooms," "Everyone will get lost," "Too much space is wasted," "The building cost too much," and "One corridor goes nowhere." (Regarding this last, the magazine helpfully points out that it's actually a staircase at Eisenman's Wexner Center in Columbus that goes nowhere: but, hey, everyone makes that mistake!) It's telling that the (false) rumors together paint what one suspects is a more vivid (and accurate) portrait of the building than would a dry recitation of the (true) facts.

Me, I loved the building the minute I saw a picture of it. Even after working for 15 years in New York, I still felt vaguely provincial: this building changed that. Form follows function? If your desired function is to get a story above the fold on the front page of the arts section of the New York Times, Eisenman's building had assumed the ideal form. So I was honored to be asked by Monacelli Press to design a book on Aronoff Center timed to its grand opening. Along with a fellow alum, Asya Palatova (nee Esther Bridavsky), I sorted through dozens of plans and hundreds of images and worked my way through essays by Sarah Whiting, Kurt Forster, Silvia Kolbowski and Jeffrey Kipnis, who, among others, had been asked to explain this building. It was reassuring in this sometimes baffling thicket of words to discover an aphorism by Frank Gehry: "The best thing about Peter's buildings is the insane spaces he ends up with. That's why he is an important architect. All that other stuff, the philosophy and all, is just bullshit as far as I'm concerned." I too loved the spaces, but I can't say I understood them. Until I visited the Aronoff Center for the first time on the day it officially opened.

I entered the building through its non-entrance, got lost in one of its corridors that only seemed to go nowhere, and finally found my way back into the original DAA building. Like the Alms and Wolfson buildings, the old DAA was largely unaltered by the addition. However, the three old buildings had, in effect, provided the blueprint for the transformation; it was the extrapolation of their seemingly random spacial relationships that had dictated the geometry of the building that now joined them. I crossed from DAA to Alms and back to Wolfson and finally into the new addition.

That's when it hit me: Eisenman had done exactly what we had done in that stairwell twenty years before. Through some impossible feat of topology, he had simply taken the existing building complex, dropped it straight through its own bleak heart, and smashed it. Then he took the gloriously twisted result, and built it, full size, right where it landed. And there it stands, ten years later.

I can't say it made sense to drop those old metal stools back when I was a college junior. I can't say that Eisenman's spaces make sense. I don't know why we did it, and I don't know why he did it. All I can say for sure is that sometimes something just feels right. And all these years later, I can still hear that crashing sound.

This essay was originally published on October 12, 2006, and appears in the new essay collection, Now You See It and Other Essays on Design, available November 7, 2017, from Princeton Architectural Press

Posted in: Architecture, Education

Comments [34]

Want to see an even uglier campus? Drive two hours North to my alma mater, Columbus College of Art & Design. My last year there they installed a 90 foot red A. A for art, of course. It complements the dilapidated buildings quite well.

Would you not also agree that the pastel shades of pink and blue were a wise choice when considering the mental anguish (read: sleep induced delirium) that so often abounds within those "insane spaces?"

Ever been to CalArts?

The new Rec Center (designed by Morphosis) might give DAAP a run for its money as most interesting building on campus now.
Derrick Schultz

Eisenman's lecture yeserday here at UC was inspiring. Despite majoring in Digital Design, and the lecture being labeled as an architecture lecture, it still made sense to me and I felt that his methodology could be applied to any aspect of design. After hearing him speak I suddenly get this building that I spend 90% of my time in.

Michael, I, and my friends will drop a stool in your honor. :D

Is that the building with all the beer bottles lined up along the top of the wall? I almost went to UC but, among other things, I hated the area and the architecture. So did my girlfriend, who transferred to my school, where I met her. Thank you, ugly UC campus!
Matt A.

Re: Eisenman's lecture

Did he give you guys the "artist at the end of their career" talk? We had that in Toronto a few weeks ago. He managed to inspire or infuriate the entire audience, which I suppose is a good sign.
Greg Smith

I am also a UC Alum '04.

You as any good writers explained feeling I never knew I had very less knew how to express. (particularly fond of the id boy explanation)

The true genius of the new DAAP building is that you DO get lost...at first. After a year you know all the nooks and crannies, the quickest path from point A to point B. Not to mention the shear joy of watching new students or better yet parents, fannypack clad, half frightened wondering around the pastel walls wondering what the hell they got their kids into.

I just got done listening to Michael lecture, and I must say, much better live than on this website. Especially since right after the lecture I walked down the Wolfson stairwell and started making plans! Thanks for the lecture.

I had the chance to go inside Eisenman Architects last weekend for Open House New York. It seemed like organized chaos with all the paper everywhere. However after visiting a couple other studios that Saturday it seemed like Eisenman's was the only space that didn't feel tight and restrictive.
Michael Surtees

The best part...I think this piece offers is how individual peception towards the creative thought manifests itself....especially when you have some of the most foremost (and talked about) Architects delivering their goods at the same place....

As a Indian and a graduate from TUDELFT, my views on what is gruesome and what is not, is a world apart..!!

I remember a close friend of mine ( A graduate from USC -'91) stating that when he visited the Eisenmann design studio in another college ( I dont remember which one.!)...all student graduate work would end up being red and black ..!!

At the TUDELFT...we had Sang Lee ( I assume he taught at Princeton )..for our 2nd semester design studio...and the basis of our whole design studio..was..


and where the hell does the research, substance of creative thought and the rationale of design go...??

Down the same stairwells... Raher in this case out of the window ....!!!


The whole of UC's campus has a sort of haphazard feel that simultaneously works to unify it. Every building spells out it's purpose by the outside. And there's logic in that. DAAP is created in such a way that it becomes so easy to be bitter towards, especially in the "hell days", but is endearing. It's crazy of how that place, slammed so much during a quarter, can instantly morph into a santuary of sorts when the pressure lifts.

I still have a few goosebumps from reading this startlingly lovely post about, among other things, the power of stories and of symbolic acts. It gives me a touchstone of unity between the personal and societal contextual views of change, like a single pebble falling within a slow motion avalanche over time.


I have read that the Eisenman's original color pallete for DAAP was rather bold, but the university wouldn't have it that way so he was told to change it. The tri-color pastel pallete was not meant to be read as colors, but rather as architectual guidelines. The pink is the step-blocks, the green is the torque, and the blue represents the chevrons.
More can be found in this pdf about the DAAP building that Eisenman built.
Dan Becker

I'm an Architecture '03 grad, and the Aronoff Center is both a thrilling and horrible building to work (and live) in. As an architecture student, the building proved to be an excellent teaching tool, both positively and negatively.

The successful genius of the addition is the aforementioned use of the existing topography of the three buildings with program space and existing hilly terrain, which knits all three buildings together in a very successful way. I cannot even begin to fathom how the original assemblage of buildings worked prior to the Aronoff Center.

On the other hand, the building's basic construction using a wide expanse of external EIFS and internal drywall, fails under the wear and tear of collegiate life. Regardless of what you think of the procession through the space (I think it is frustrating, but oddly genius), the biggest failure are the materials. Which is interesting, because the original three buildings are concrete behemoths which will never win design awards, have held up better than Aronoff ever will. In fact, the three original buildings actually are improved by the grafting of the Aronoff Center, as a contrasting element.
the grubbykid

Michael, I, and my friends will drop a stool in your honor. :D

Did this make anyone else chuckle?

I think RIT in Rochester, NY has held a spot in the top 3 ugliest for quite some time too. We practice brutalism there.

As another DAA alum (BSD-G '85), I looked forward to seeing the "major" new building. Several classmates & I even traveled to make the opening weekend into an informal reunion of sorts. My first reaction was positive—it's fantastic how the public side facing Burnett Woods seems so animated.

The interior materials though, gave all of us pause. For a building that is occupied 24/7, it seemed too delicate for all the use (& abuse) it would need to withstand. Our consensus was that it would not age well. It would have served the architect well to have dropped in on the old structure at 2 am to see how it was used. Ironically, the neighboring engineering building by DAA alum Michael Graves has the physical sturdiness that Eisenman's lacks. And it was completely empty that weekend, while DAAP was buzzing with student worker bees. No doubt, Eisenman's is the more aesthetically intersting design, but the form doesn't follow function.

Does anyone else find it curious that the architecture studios now have the lousiest views?

Mrs. Gill Sans

A highlight of my college career was witnessing Gordon Salchow discover a classmate cutting matboard with an exacto knife on the three-week old Aronoff floor.

His words were along the lines of "we've been in shitty buildings for the last forty years, we're rewarded with a signature building, and you use it to cut on with your exacto knife?"

DAAP architecture alumn '02, that's me. I started the year the building opened. Maybe that's why I didn't appreciate it then, and why I still don't to this day. It was an awkward building to work in, it was filthy because of all the ledges and acute-angled corners, and you could literally tear chunks of the exterior apart with your hands.

A few classmates and I performed our own rite, in the fourth year- we threw a loaded pudding cup up against the facade. So much less poetic, but last time I was there (2005), the pudding was still there, dried and crusted into the pocked EIFS, under one of many pointless juts.

Ah, late night delirium in the studio and ceremonial destruction. Carnegie Mellon, where I attended design school, also has a stairwell like that one. 8 floors down, it is commonly referred to as "Architects' Leap". The concrete floor at the bottom was pock-marked from all of the objects dropped from the top. This stairwell was also housed in an architectural behemoth, Wean Hall, a poured concrete building designed more appropriately for withstanding warfare than facilitating humans.

We also disposed of those studio stools from great heights, but that's a whole other story.
Chris Rugen

Although the Aronoff may not be prepared to handle what design students are willing to throw at-or on, or all over- it, I think the building is appropriate. I am much happier to stay up all night, taking my breaks wandering down the "sorbet" grand staircase of DAAP than past the cold bricks in the ERC (the Graves building).

The change of colors and textures (though textures could be much better) makes an appealing combination with the old buildings. All of my studios have been in the old buildings, and I must say, I think they are quite nice spaces. Even though Alms got a little cold in the early mornings of winter quarter... Nonetheless, the new building is so ambiguously sharp-yet-soft, fitting so disjointedly in between the glassy rectangles of the exisitng buildings, that I think they create a successful equilibrium in all senses. What would the new building be without the old ones?

On the side: It's turning into a whole nother animal with the moss on the north side--nice patina. I suppose that's one way to make the materials more interesting.

A beautiful piece of architecture, I have to agree. I have always believed that buildings are what we make of it. The old buildings were good once upon a time and even this Eisenman building will see some bad days sometime in the future...if no one cares for them. My question, if you appreciate it, why destroy it?

When you spend four years of your life in one place, a part of you does come to love all that's around you - good or bad. At times we don't realise this, but it hits us, when one afternoon we decide to take that trip down memory lane.

We make buildings, and unconsciously buildings do contribute to our creative power. Don't you think so?

UC is very fortunate to have a building such as this.
Mona Bagla

MB-I was there on that fatefull night the stools were dropped from the heights of Wolfson. You were a larger than life Senior and I was a Sophomore and the falling stools were as beautiful as any sunset. -Douglas Frueh, DAAP Class of 1983
Douglas Frueh

It looks like a beautiful building to me; I've never been to Cincinnati. I will brag, though, that my alma mater - the University of Washington - boasts one of the most beautiful campuses I've ever been on. The building that houses the design department is quite at odds with the Swiss Modernist curriculum taught therein, but there is some nice contemporary architecture around campus. And just a few miles south, of course, is our famous Koolhaas library....

Lovely posting, though I confess I read it hoping that you were building to an "I hate the Eisenmann building" conclusion. Never been there, but in pix it looks like a nightmare to me -- those shapes and spaces remind me of "Cabinet of Doctor Caligari," and those colors seem to come from "cheery" hospitals. Make that a nightmare squared.

But maybe that's a diff between designers and non-designers. Many designers look at stuff like this and think "neato!" I look at it and sigh wearily.
Michael Blowhard

Heck, I drop a stool every morning.


Does anyone at CCM think that their building should make more of a comment on 'sound'?


Its a building that needs to be experienced multiple times. Theres a reason why most critics hate it (like many first timers — without a guide, you can easily end up in a bolier room or somewhere you dont want to be). This building was not designed as a public space (though unfortunately the recent growth of the campus has made it a multi-use building), but as a second home for a lot of students (and oftentimes the first home). Its designed for the students, not the passerby.

Since most of us use it and experience it for at least 5 years (and its layout is generally understood within the first couple of weeks by most students), it would make sense that the building is a complex passage of surprises and new corners everytime. It is, I think, designed directly for its audience, and if you're not the intended audience, its really hard to like.

In an interesting twist of fate, when I enter the more traditional buildings on campus, I find myself very confused as to what floor I am on and which direction I'm headed. I'm so used to each floor having its individual quirks and personality like in DAAP, that tradtional floorplans remove the immmediate ability to become acquainted by visual presence. Its an odd feeling, but I can at least sympathize with those that enter DAAP for the first time.
Derrick Schultz

I've enjoyed all your posts...
There are times when I miss DAAP and Cincinnati. I was School of Design Faculty from 1988-1991, and was a part of the audience for many presentations during the development period of Eisenman's building. I loved the way he dressed- a navy blue crew neck sweater with a bow tie "perched" on its collar. DAAP faculty and students always filled the auditorium for his presentations. He typically presented his many processes for "our" vision wrapped in cryptic garb. But in this particular presentation we finally had a preview of plans, elevations, and sections. I share what I believe was a watershed moment for this project- the event where we actually saw spaces faculty and students would occupy.

And while I can't be sure that I have this encounter verbatim, I think it is pretty close. I do think it captures the enigma at work both in the man and the building. And it appears from these posts the enigma continues 10 years later.

This memorable moment goes something like this... In this aforementioned presentation, a well respected senior professor in Planning was vocally perturbed that Eisenman would dare propose odd structural supports running interference with much of the studio space severely hindering what he believed to be the functionally of its intended purpose. Surely this could not be intentional. Then a photography instructor chimed in questioning whether it was wise to have walls in darkrooms that ended in severe vortex like angles- primary because of safety issues.

Was there mutiny afoot? ...(i said to myself as i squirmed uneasily and faculty began to posture under their breath). But then the room went silent with a pregnant pause as Eisenman's silent eyes, (and that wonderful bow tie) finally subdued the audience. Then if on cue he turned, rolled up his drawings- turned again to the audience and pronounced, " I bring you form, the function is your problem". He then promptly left the stage.

To this day I still don't know if the weird placement of those supports is something Planning must live with or the darkroom walls were ever squared off- for safety. I will be curious to find out one day. It was all very instructive and now fun to reminisce about so many years later.
douglas higgins

I don't like Eisenman's work too. But he is good. To me, he is the first to dislodge the "Mondrian type" of harmony.

I think there is something to learn from him.

look fr LDA


"Through some impossible feat of topology, he had simply taken the existing building complex, dropped it straight through its own bleak heart, and smashed it. Then he took the gloriously twisted result, and built it, full size, right where it landed. And there it stands, ten years later."

Too obscure for me. What did he actually do? I cannot tell from your description.
David Sucher

Doesn't it bother anyone else that Eisenman's work and reputation are based on violence and the destruction of order?

I don't know about everyone else, but as an architect I was always taught our job was to make life better and more comfortable. Not the other way around.

I know I sound old-fashioned here, despite being under 40. And as a professional architect I definitely sympathize with the collegiate urge to smash things every now and then - especially after the blandness of concrete Modernism.

But for God's sake. People have to live with this stuff.

When are we going to grow out of the "lets smash it and see what happens" phase and get back to work making comfortable and creative environments? Haven't we had enough dizzying novelty and violent deconstruction yet? Isn't the world already broken enough?

Noah Raford

My classmates and I used to drop 2-liter bottles of soda down that stairwell

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