We Can’t Have Nice Things: Our Expectations for Public Transit Have Been on a Decades-Long Downward Spiral

Originally published in The Stranger on 2 May 2018.

“You really shouldn’t have done that,” the youth pastor scolded me after several minutes of awkward silence. Coming from a mild-mannered Presbyterian minister, it may as well have been a temper tantrum worthy of an American Chopper meme.

I was a high school junior in Florida at the time, and my church youth group was visiting Atlanta for the weekend. We spent Saturday at the Six Flags theme park, and on Sunday we’d catch a Braves game at Fulton County Stadium. Before the ball game, though, we stopped for lunch at the Varsity, a locally revered drive-in near the Georgia Tech campus.

But I wasn’t interested in chilidogs at the Varsity. Atlanta was by far the largest city I had set foot inside at that time, and a big chunk of downtown Atlanta had been designed by John Portman, one of my favorite architects. Atlanta was also the first city I had visited that had a real subway system, and I was already well on my way to becoming an emotionally constipated transit geek at that age. (My ability to explain the differences between the IRT, BMT, and IND divisions of the New York City subway never fails to make me the life of the party.)

This was years before iPhones and Google Maps, but I somehow knew the North Avenue MARTA station was only a couple blocks down the street from the Varsity, and that John Portman’s Peachtree Center was only two stops south. I snuck away from the group and walked to the station, rode a fast train to Peachtree Center, and then rode a glass elevator to the top of the spectacular 52-story atrium in Portman’s Marriott Marquis hotel. My urge to explore Peachtree Center satiated, I returned to the Varsity to face a very anxious youth pastor. That short trip on MARTA was my first-ever ride on a subway.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Atlanta’s MARTA system was among the last of its kind: a modern, high-capacity rapid transit system in the United States.

An entire generation has now been raised under the assumption that such systems are far too costly and ambitious to build today. A recent Seattle Times story compared Seattle’s Link light rail system to Vancouver’s far superior SkyTrain system, but it’s also worth comparing our Link system to what we were able to build here in the US only a few short decades ago.

By the end of World War II, the mental picture of a subway in the United States was that of a dank, rickety system like in New York or Chicago. The automobile was seen as the way of the future; the Interstate Highway System was hatched, and streetcar systems around the country were systematically converted to diesel-powered bus routes.

But the problems with automobile dependency were already becoming apparent by the 1960s. And as more and more urban areas were destroyed by new freeway construction, “freeway revolts” quickly became a thing. Jane Jacobs famously led the fight to block the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would’ve wiped SoHo and Greenwich Village off the map. Closer to home, a proposed crosstown freeway that would’ve plowed through the Washington Park Arboretum was successfully blocked by referendum in 1972.

The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964—signed into law by Lyndon Johnson as part of his Great Society agenda and followed by subsequent legislation in 1970 and 1974—tacitly recognized that freeways weren’t the answer for cities. The act spearheaded the construction of fast, modern rapid transit systems in several American cities, including MARTA in Atlanta, BART in the Bay Area, and most notably, the Washington, DC Metro system.

The 100-mile rapid transit system for the nation’s capitol was formally approved in 1968, when the population of the Washington, DC metropolitan area was about three million people, slightly less than Seattle’s metro area population today. A signature initiative of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the Metro system was conceived as “a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community,” in Johnson’s words. Whereas the older subway stations of New York and Chicago have all the graciousness of detention facilities, the Metro system was designed to elevate the dignity of all who use it, from janitor to Senator.

Designed by Chicago-based Harry Weese Associates, the Metro system is monumental without being ostentatious; the concrete waffle-slab station vaults evoke the District’s neoclassical civic monuments without being derivative. (And in a great example of how good design doesn’t mean breaking the bank, Metro’s parabolic barrel vaults actually cost less to build than the flat-ceilinged stations in the original design proposals.) The Washington Metro system received the prestigious 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects in 2014.

Today, each eight-car, 600-foot train on the Metro system can comfortably carry about 1400 people. Combined with Vancouver-style full automation, trains arriving at a station once every 100 seconds could carry 50,400 people per hour each direction. (Multiply that number by 1.3 for crush load capacity, and that capacity could be further increased with innovations like open gangways between cars.) Each lane of a freeway, by comparison, can move only about 3600 people per hour, assuming a relatively generous 1.5 average occupants per vehicle. Electric vehicles might reduce emissions but they can’t change geometry; a subway or elevated system remains by far the most efficient way to move people from urban point A to urban point B.

Seattle, of course, had its chance to build its own Washington Metro-style rapid transit system during this era—a majority of the electorate even voted to do so—but the Forward Thrust initiative failed to reach an arbitrary 60% threshold for approval, and the federal money went to Atlanta instead. We’re now finally building out a regional light rail system, but the numbers tell us that we’re getting much less for our money.

Each four-car, 400-foot Link train can carry 776 people in comfort. Vancouver-style automation isn’t a possibility here thanks to shortsighted decisions to run Link trains on surface streets in various locations and temporarily share the downtown transit tunnel with buses. The best headways we can ever hope for are about ten trains per hour, which gives us a capacity of 7760 people per hour in each direction. (Again, multiply by 1.3 for crush loads.) Sound Transit’s East Link line is currently under construction at a cost of $264M per mile. Measured in 2018 dollars, the original, higher-capacity 100-mile subway system in Washington D.C. cost about $277M per mile to build.

And then there’s the question of speed. We measure our daily commutes in minutes, not miles. A 30-minute ride on Vancouver’s SkyTrain’s Expo Line from the Granville station gets you as far as New Westminster, about 13 miles from downtown. Spend 30 minutes on Link and you might get seven miles, from Westlake to the Rainier Beach station, if you’re lucky enough to avoid a collision on MLK Boulevard along the way. This makes a world of difference when we’re looking for housing within a reasonable commuting distance. Even with similar skyrocketing housing prices, much more of the Vancouver area is within reasonable commuting distance of downtown Vancouver. We can’t say the same about Seattle now, and probably never will.

In short, we’re spending roughly the same cost per mile to build a light rail system in Seattle as Washington D.C. spent on its Metro system in the 1970s—but our “rapid transit” system only carries 15% of Metro’s potential capacity, does so at much slower speeds, and costs more to operate. This isn’t to say we should allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good—I strongly support building out the full ST3 system as quickly as possible—but we could’ve had a far better system.

So, what happened? Since Washington D.C.’s Metro system was approved in 1968, the nation’s population has increased by 60 million people, our GDP has nearly quadrupled, and our productivity has doubled. A computer that used to fill a warehouse now fits in your pocket, and we’re seen great advances in construction and tunnel-boring technology. You would think something like the Washington Metro would be much easier and less costly to build today than in the age of Woodstock.

But you’d be wrong.

In the years since I escaped my youth group and took that formative MARTA trip to Peachtree Center, I’ve ridden nearly every major subway system in the United States and a few systems abroad, and at various times I’ve been a daily commuter on the Chicago ‘L’, Boston’s ‘T’, and the New York City subway. Over that same time period, I’ve watched our expectations for public transit in America devolve from the Great Society projects of BART, MARTA, and the Washington Metro in the 1970s, to surface-running light rail in the 1990s, to small streetcar projects in the 2000s. Next thing you know, we’ll be slapping a special paint scheme and the word “Rapid” onto buses to fool people into thinking they go faster. Oh, wait.

Transportation funding as a share of GDP has been on a steady decline since 1960, even as our population grows and construction costs skyrocket. What little funding remains has largely been redirected toward highways and airports. The Purple Line extension in Los Angeles is now topping out at $800M per mile. New York’s three-station Second Avenue Subway cost a staggering $2.6 billion per mile, and aside from a few small extensions, New York City hasn’t opened a single new subway line since 1940. We refuse to even maintain what we’ve built; the NYC subway and Washington Metro systems are crumbling due to deferred maintenance, along with our public schools and the rest of our social contract.

Alon Levy explains how subway construction in America has gotten so expensive compared to other countries, but doesn’t really address the why. Levy is a smart person with a strong mathematics background, but maybe they should’ve spent more time over in the humanities department. The fundamental reasons for our decline aren’t technical or mathematical, but cultural: As a nation, we didn’t even wait for the ink to dry on the Civil Rights Act before we simply stopped giving a shit about the public good as a concept.

Ten years after the the youthful optimism of JFK and the Great Society, Middle America barricaded itself in the suburbs and swallowed Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Then came fictional “welfare queens” and the Reagan Revolution. Nearly every metric of quality of life in America began its downward slide around the time Reagan took office, and investment in public transit was no exception.

Wealthy homeowners had already blocked BART’s expansion to Marin County in the 1960s, and in the suburbs of Atlanta, the MARTA acronym became an unprintable racist punch line. The Washington Metro master plan wasn’t fully built out until 2001. Even when we’ve managed to build high-quality transit, many stations remain surrounded by acres of parking and low-rise sprawl. Up in Vancouver, vertical neighborhoods of high-rise apartments surround many SkyTrain stations. And in America? We continue to prove that even the best-designed transit systems can’t make up for terrible land use decisions.

Meanwhile, billionaires and mega-corporations have seen their taxes slashed, while what remains of public revenue gets shoveled into the military. The Pentagon spends as much money each month as Sound Transit’s ST3 plan proposes to spend over 25 years. Other countries have continued to expand and improve their transit systems over the past 40 years, but we’ve had to settle for ever-diminishing expectations. Your slow, crowded Link train got delayed again because it hit a car in the Rainier Valley? Sorry, but that’s the best transit we can afford these days. Now shut up and put on your MAGA hat like a good American.

During the post-war era, our national thought leaders have managed to convince a sizeable portion of the population that urban density and robust public transit systems are some kind of United Nation “Agenda 21” conspiracy. The idea that our representative (in theory) government should provide for the common good, be it in transit or education or healthcare, used to be mainstream but has been systematically turned into a fringe belief somewhere out there in Karl Marx’s territory. Civic optimism has been replaced by false nostalgia and permanent austerity. If architect Harry Weese were to present his design for the Washington Metro system to the Sound Transit board today, they’d swallow their snuff in shock.

As Charles Mudede recently pointed out, this wasn’t natural evolution at work, but deliberate social engineering at the behest of automotive and fossil fuel industries. Seven of the world’s ten largest companies in terms of revenue are automotive or fossil fuel companies, and car-related advertising dominates the nightly newscasts and print newspapers of every American city. If you think all that ad revenue doesn’t slant their news coverage about transit, I have a bridge to sell you.

Governments at every level, from your local zoning commission to the White House, have made automobile dependency the de facto way of life in America, and our political leaders are rewarded handsomely for it. Even if the costs to build effective transit were as low as they are in Europe, the deeply-entrenched political resistance to it would remain. The suburban ideal of the single-family house with a Mustang in the garage inspires Jonestown levels of religious fervor, with cheap gasoline standing in for the Kool-Aid.

It’s a tragic irony that the postwar electorate who gave us JFK and the Moon Landing will be most remembered for giving us Donald Trump and a planetary climate crisis. It will be the life work of their children and grandchildren to reverse the damage and bend the moral arc of the universe back toward justice—and toward more ambitious rapid transit plans.


Characteristics of Urban Transportation Systems (Revised Edition), United States Department of Transportation, September 1992.

7000 Series Railcar Technical Specification, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, January 30, 2009.

With Friends Like Mayor Durkan, The Seattle Streetcar Needs No Enemies

Originally published in The Stranger on 11 April 2018.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: After years of ballot measures, public hearings, and studies confirming both public support for a major streetcar project and its viability, a newly-elected mayor abruptly shuts down the project just as preliminary construction is getting underway.

In this case, the setting was my hometown of Cincinnati. Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always twenty years behind the times,” but Cincinnati was ahead of this nasty curve.

In Cincinnati’s 2013 mayoral election—a race with strong racial undertones that would foreshadow the presidential election three years later—a real estate developer with small ideas and a big mouth ran against a highly qualified female technocrat. The real estate developer’s agenda: undo the legacy of the popular but term-limited black incumbent. The developer, John Cranley, won the election, and his first order of business as mayor was to cancel a 3.1-mile streetcar loop in mid-construction, a major initiative of former mayor Mark Mallory.

The streetcar was narrowly saved a month later when a groundswell of public pressure flipped the votes of two city council members and gave the project a veto-proof supermajority. The streetcar finally had its grand opening in September 2016, but still suffers from mismanagement and indifference from the mayor’s office, and the local newspaper of record still talks about it as if it’s the work of the devil.

Cincinnatians who have recently moved to Seattle can be forgiven for having some unpleasant flashbacks when Mayor Durkan abruptly suspended construction on the Center City Connector, which would connect the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines via downtown Seattle.

The stop-work order was ostensibly in response to revelations that the project faces a $23 million shortfall. I’m all in favor of fiscal prudence, and if an investigation should find that the shortfall is caused by negligence and/or malfeasance, the city should pursue all remedies at its disposal. But Mayor Durkan’s abrupt move reeks of an ideological agenda that has nothing to do with money.

For starters, stopping a major construction project after contracts have been signed and work has begun isn’t as simple as returning an item to Amazon for a refund after taking a look at your credit card bill; this is more like having second thoughts about the caterer for your wedding reception while walking down the aisle. The appropriate time to raise objections has long passed—which is a nice way of saying, “Sorry, but it’s way too late to get your money back.”

Much of the money spent on the Center City Connector is already unrecoverable. The vehicles have been ordered. SDOT estimates that the mere act of pausing the project will add up to another $14 million to the final bill. The investigation itself is expected to cost another $500,000. With construction costs in Seattle escalating as fast as they are, we’ll soon reach a point where the costs of the delay will far surpass any potential savings, and we’ll be left with nothing to show for it.

And then there are the opportunity costs and the long-term damage to the city’s credibility.

The Center City Connector budget includes $75 million in federal grants that can’t simply be redirected to other Seattle projects. That money will be sent back to Donald Trump, and Seattle will find itself at the back of the queue when applying for future federal grants. Cincinnati hasn’t received a single TIGER grant since Mayor Cranley pulled the same stunt—and the month-long pause on Cincinnati’s streetcar added over a million dollars to the final cost of the project.

Contractors and consultants, for their part, will remember this episode when negotiating future deals with the city, and you can be certain their bids will reflect the added risk of dealing with a city that apparently has no qualms about reneging on its legal agreements. Under the guise of fiscal responsibility, Mayor Durkan has ensured that future projects will be far more costly.

But again, it’s never about the money. Funny how projects like the SR-99 tunnel and the new international facility at Sea-Tac Airport are never held to the same level of scrutiny as public transit projects. Where are the calls to stop construction on these projects and spend half a million more dollars or more to find out why they cost so much? (Reminder: the projected cost overruns on the SR-99 tunnel project are nearly as much as the Center City Connector’s entire construction budget.)

Durkan’s move to kill the streetcar—unceremoniously announced in a Friday evening news dump—comes among SDOT decisions to delay construction of the Basic Bike Network, a proposed “reset” of the voter-approved Move Seattle plan, and other measures to water down proposed improvements in Rainier Valley and in West Seattle. Just this week, Durkan’s SDOT inexplicably rescinded its State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) determination of non-significance for the expansion of the streetcar maintenance facility in South Lake Union—the determination that the project would have minimal environmental impacts. If expansion work resumes, the lengthy environmental review process must begin again from scratch.

Durkan’s approach is that of somebody who thinks the automobile will always and should always be Seattle’s default mode of transportation; even her proposed congestion pricing scheme, which could ease downtown traffic and provide a revenue stream for transit, is a stick without a carrot. Unless it’s coupled with robust improvements to our transit and bike network, it’s just another regressive tax.

I’m well aware of the streetcar’s checkered history here in Seattle. Equipment problems have plagued the First Hill streetcar, and both the First Hill and South Lake Union lines are slow-moving and frequently delayed by other traffic. But when designed and operated correctly—and connected to robust regional rail and local bus service—streetcars can be a critical part of a city’s public transit system. By creating dedicated lanes for its streetcars, Toronto saw massive improvements in the speed and reliability of its streetcars. Toronto’s proven best practices are already baked into the design of Seattle’s Center City Connector.

The need for high-capacity transit through downtown Seattle has never been greater. The waterfront will soon be choked with construction as the viaduct comes down, and buses will be evicted from the transit tunnel in 2019 for expansion of the convention center. The second downtown transit tunnel, promised by ST3 and running under 5th Avenue, will be four steep blocks uphill from the streetcar corridor and not scheduled to be completed until 2035. The Center City Connector, linking the two existing streetcar lines via dedicated lanes on First Avenue with signal priority and frequent headways, will immeasurably add to the usefulness of the SLU and First Hill lines, as well as provide new connections between Westlake, Pike Place Market, Colman Dock, Pioneer Square, and King Street Station.

Unfortunately, Durkan’s decision follows a familiar pattern of voter-approved transit projects being subsequently undermined by our elected officials. Despite a 55% victory at the ballot box in 2016, ST3 finds itself under attack by politicians in Olympia eager to dole out car tab relief to owners of late-model luxury cars. The Move Seattle levy passed with 58% of the vote in 2015, only to be “reset” by Durkan now. Durkan may describe it as “Trump-proofing” Seattle, but it looks an awful lot like she’s doing Trump’s dirty work for him.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. During a candidate forum last June, Cary Moon, Nikkita Oliver, and Jessyn Farrell each articulated a clear vision for public transit in Seattle. Jenny Durkan, by contrast, offered some mealy-mouthed platitudes about transit but little in the way of actionable policy ideas. Notably, she also ranked pedestrians dead-last on her written list of transportation priorities.

The Transportation section of Durkan’s campaign site contains all the right words about transit, bikes, and safe streets—it even touts the Center City Connector!—but her actions to date tell a different story: Sabotaging transit projects, scrapping bike infrastructure, making it more expensive for people to drive into the city without providing alternatives. She ran against the Trump Administration’s environmental agenda, but she’s governing like a Scott Pruitt acolyte. At least Pruitt doesn’t bother wearing sheep’s clothing.

It’s a sad commentary about America that even relatively minor transit projects must still rely on sustained grassroots activism to survive sabotage by public officials. To paraphrase Ansel Adams, it is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to provide alternatives to climate-destroying automobiles. Don’t dare tell me there’s no money for transit while we spend the equivalent of the entire $54 billion ST3 budget each month on our military and Jeff Bezos don’t pay a dime in state or local income tax.

The idea of public transit as a superfluous form of social welfare may still hold sway back in Republican-dominated Ohio, but we should demand better here in liberal Seattle.

Mayor Durkan? Resume construction on the Center City Connector immediately. If you don’t, then you should apologize to Seattle voters for lying to us during the campaign.

Let’s Not Screw Up Northgate, Too: The Redevelopment of Seattle’s Oldest Mall Is a Chance to Get Things Right

Originally published in The Stranger on 29 March 2018.

Growing up as a mall rat in 1980s suburbia—long before I had formally studied architecture or explored any major cities—the big regional mall was the closest thing to a grand civic space my friends and I had yet experienced. When the American “inner city” was still perceived as a cesspool of crime and dysfunction by “Middle America,” the local suburban mall was the place to see and be seen. Once you found a parking spot and made it inside, it was about the only pedestrian-scaled environment we had access to.

The enclosed marketplace traces its roots thousands of years back to the Greek agora and the Middle Eastern souk. We have our own version of it at Pike Place. In contrast to those precedents, the suburban mall was on the urban periphery, and designed for easy freeway access. (Downtown malls like Pacific Place essentially replicate the suburban shopping experience within an urban setting, with mixed success.) But the automobile-oriented suburban malls of the postwar era are a dying breed, soon to be replaced by Amazon-branded drones and God-knows what else.

Seattle’s Northgate Mall, built in 1950, is one of the oldest enclosed shopping malls in the United States. Northgate’s retailers have seen flagging revenue in recent years and the mall’s owner, Simon Property Group, has read the tea leaves and recently proposed a “a complete re-imagining of Northgate.” The idea currently on the table would halve the amount of retail space while adding up to 750,000 square feet of office space, a hotel, and several hundred units of housing.

More specific plans for the site haven’t yet been disclosed, but if recent developments around the mall’s periphery are any indication, we can expect a small collection of buildings topping out at five or six stories each, with housing or offices above a retail podium and lots of parking under the new buildings or tucked away toward the rear. Think Redmond Town Center or The Landing in Renton.

Such developments check off all the requisite New Urbanist boxes in order to pass the design review process, but still manage to feel about as sterile and manufactured as any suburban strip mall. And as far doing something meaningful about our housing shortage is concerned, building a few hundred units amounts to a drop in the bucket.

The political pressure to minimize density at Northgate will be immense: neighborhood groups dominated by homeowners who stand to profit handsomely from the housing shortage will demand shorter buildings, more nebulous “open space,” and always more parking. The comments on the Seattle Times article about reimagining Northgate already contain the usual sophistry about traffic and “light-blocking” towers; rhetorical gymnastics to avoid saying, “We don’t want more people in our neighborhood, especially if they’re black or brown renters who use transit.”

Every city has a certain kind of neighborhood activist who longs for that city’s bygone glory days—usually a time that happens to coincide with the month and year they arrived in town—and any development that disturbs their concept of that golden era is to be resisted at all costs. These activists don’t want to live in a dynamic city; they want to live in a museum diorama forever frozen in sepia-toned amber.

Seattle, settled by whites on Duwamish lands less than two centuries ago, is still a young city. Compared to other major cities it’s barely an adolescent; it has undergone periods of massive change and will continue to do so. Such change can be shaped for better or worse, but to resist it altogether is ruinous. It’s a kind of class warfare waged by people who bought homes here decades ago against newer arrivals who can’t even find an affordable apartment, much less a condo they could ever dream of owning.

If a bunch of us 80s kids donned our old Members Only jackets and packed public hearings to demand that Northgate Mall be preserved exactly as it was when Fast Times at Ridgemont High was in theaters, we’d rightly be laughed out of the room. But many local homeowners feel entitled to demand that Seattle’s neighborhoods conform to the puritanical, racially segregated, auto-dependent mores of the Leave it to Beaver era.

It may be too late to change direction at Capitol Hill, where not enough housing and too much parking is planned, but at Northgate we still have time to aim higher. Literally.

Done right, a redeveloped Northgate Mall would combine the high-rise density of Atlanta’s Buckhead district with the pedestrian-scaled retail experience of Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade. Buckhead, anchored by Lenox Square Mall and a MARTA transit hub, was ironically made possible by Seattle’s rejection of a rapid transit system in 1970. Atlanta got the federal money instead, and built MARTA. Seattle has been lamenting that lost opportunity ever since, but we are now—finally—building the rapid transit system this young city needs.

We should be aiming for new developments at transit hubs like Northgate with thousands of housing units, not hundreds. Again, it’s probably too late to do anything about the plans for Capitol Hill. But with light rail and easy freeway access, there’s no reason Northgate can’t become a satellite downtown core. Think Bellevue without Kemper Freeman.

The city, for its part, could help matters by increasing the current height limit at Northgate from a paltry 95 feet, which limits buildings to no more than about eight stories. Adding a zero to that number and changing minimum parking requirements to maximum parking requirements would be a good start. Future generations will judge us as much by what we fail to build as by what we build.

I’ll probably always have a guilty soft spot for the postwar shopping mall, complete with its earth tone color palette and fast food of questionable origin. I still recall the scent of Karamelkorn and soft pretzels in the old food court of Florence Mall near my hometown of Cincinnati. My favorite leather jacket, now faded and cracked, was purchased years ago at Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey. Water Tower Place on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile was my gateway drug to high-rise urbanism.

But I wasn’t feeling particularly wistful while wandering the concourse of Northgate Mall this past weekend. More than anything else, it felt like this type of environment is well past its prime. Nostalgia has its place, but it’s a terrible basis on which to design our future.

Now is the time to move on to bigger and better things. During an era of ever-diminishing civic expectations, resistance means building as if our glory days are still ahead of us.

Missed Opportunity: We Should Be Building a Lot More Housing On Top of the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station

Originally published in The Stranger on 14 March 2018.

Two years ago this month I was visiting Seattle for a week of job interviews and apartment tours. My visit happened to coincide with the grand opening of the Capitol Hill and UW Link stations, and I was fortunate to snag a pass for the inaugural train ride from UW to Capitol Hill. It took 30 minutes by bus to reach the UW station from downtown that morning, and six minutes by train for the return trip.

The only disappointment of the day was emerging from the Capitol Hill station to see a two-block swath of vacant land above the station. Given that Seattle was in the midst of an unprecedented housing shortage—a shortage that has only worsened over the last two years—it seemed strange that this huge piece of land wasn’t teeming with construction activity. The construction of several thousand housing units should have ideally begun the minute the station’s concrete shell had sufficiently cured.

Fast-forward to the present day. I now live and work downtown, and frequently ride Link to Capitol Hill to run errands, meet with friends, and satiate my margarita cravings at Poquitos. The escalators finally seem to be working, and the station has become a neighborhood fixture.

Sadly, that empty tract of vacant land above the station has also become a neighborhood fixture.

What had been a continuous business district running up Broadway from Madison Street to Roy Street is now bisected by a moat of asphalt and chain-link fence. This may have been an inevitable consequence of building the station, but you’d think the effort to heal this wound in the urban fabric would’ve been treated with more urgency—and more ambition.

Groundbreaking is slated this spring for a mixed-use development on the site. Better late than never, I suppose, but the proposed design is inadequate for the needs of this city.

I’ve been in the architecture business long enough to know the design process is far more complicated than most people outside the profession understand. That said, it shouldn’t have taken ten years to design a project of this scope: four seven-story buildings containing 428 apartments and 216 parking stalls, ground level retail and a day care center, all surrounding a large open plaza.

Simply put: the development contains too little of what we need and too much of what we don’t.

The proposed outdoor plaza is a gratuitous gesture—Cal Anderson Park is literally across the street, and it’s not enough? The knee-jerk impulse to provide “open space” is practically gospel among urban designers of a certain vintage, but such spaces often end up becoming little more than barren, windswept pigeon colonies.

Those 216 parking stalls? It’s like attaching an ashtray to your treadmill. The whole point of building Link in the first place is so that we can reduce automobile dependency and stop devoting large, valuable chunks of our city to the sole purpose of storing cars.

And there’s no technical reason two or three 30-story towers couldn’t have been built on the site over a continuous retail podium, which would’ve quadrupled the number of apartments and doubled the amount of retail space. While building high-rises over the station would’ve presented some interesting structural challenges, it’s nothing that couldn’t have been accomplished by a competent design team. Given the current housing market, it would’ve been worth the extra effort.

Up in Vancouver, clusters of high-rise towers containing hundreds of apartments each surround numerous SkyTrain stations—even those far out in the suburbs. At New Westminster, four large towers straddle an elevated SkyTrain station, while a large Safeway and other ground-floor retail help anchor a vibrant business district. These hubs have thousands of units of housing; the plan for Capitol Hill amounts to a little over four hundred.

In Seattle, multifamily buildings are forbidden throughout 90% of the city by zoning codes written to preserve single-family property values above all else. Anything that deviates from the postwar suburban ideal is deemed an outrage by those with a financial interest in the status quo. (Scarcity drives property values up and longtime residents out.) Even in places where we don’t have to build homes with white picket fences, the desire to keep things “the same” spills out of the single family zones and sloshes all over the city. A big, ambitious cluster of towers going up over Capitol Hill station could be—gasp!—seen from some of those single-family zones higher up the hill. It would change the view, and we can’t have that because we can’t have change. Because if things change happens there, things might start changing in our precious single-family zones.

We have it exactly backwards. Given the local housing shortage and the planetary climate crisis, high-density urban housing—ambitious projects with as many units as we can possibly build—should now be our default approach. New York, Chicago, Vancouver, and even Seattle contain districts where mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings contribute to livable neighborhoods and vibrant streetscapes. See: First Hill and Belltown. Each new apartment going up near (or over!) a Link station means one fewer house built in the suburbs, one fewer car on the freeway, and one fewer family being displaced from an older building elsewhere in the city.

And you know what? Building ambitious, high-density housing wherever we can decreases the pressure to rezone the parts of the city reserved for single-family homes. So people who want to preserve all the single-family zoning we have right now should be the loudest advocates for building apartment towers and blocks wherever current zoning allows—if it’s actually single-family zoning they want to protect and not a housing crisis that serves to drive their property values up ever-higher.

It’s probably too late to alter course at Capitol Hill. (And have you read the news lately? We may be reaching the end of a decade-long building boom, Trump is imposing steep tariffs on raw building materials, and storm clouds for another recession are gathering on the horizon. We’ll be lucky if anything gets built at all.) But the era of multifamily housing in Seattle defaulting to five stories of wood-frame construction above a concrete retail podium must end. Construction of this type is generally cheap and easy to build, but we should set our expectations much higher at busy transit nodes like this. We should be aiming for thousands of new apartments at Link stations, not dozens or hundreds. Not five-story buildings, but 25-story ones. When opportunities arrive to develop large sites like at Capitol Hill and Northgate for housing, we do a disservice to future generations by settling for milquetoast half-measures.

University of Cincinnati Selects Design Team for New Lindner College of Business

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 4 January 2016.

On December 18, the University of Cincinnati announced that its new $100-135 million Carl H. Lindner College of Business facility would be designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in association with Cincinnati-based KZF Design. The final building is expected to be paid for through a combination of private donation and university funds.

This continues the university’s Signature Architecture Program, in which renown architecture firms from around the world are selected to design new buildings on campus, typically with a local firm serving as the architect of record. In such an arrangement, the design architect typically leads the project from concept through the design development stage, in which the overall design intent for the building is established.

The architect of record (also sometimes known as the executive architect) then carries the project through construction documents and construction administration, assuming responsibility for the technical aspects of the project. Each party typically has some involvement over the entire course of the design and construction process, but the architect of record remains legally responsible for the project, including compliance with applicable building codes.

This arrangement is common when the project is located outside the design architect’s own geographic region, and/or if the project type is outside the design architect’s usual area of expertise. For example, New York-based Architecture Research Office recently collaborated with Heery International, an Atlanta-based firm with a strong portfolio of athletic facilities, on the design of the new West Pavilion at Nippert Stadium.

Founded in 1959, Copenhagen-based Henning Larsen Architects has a long history of innovative design for educational facilities throughout the world, particularly in Europe and the Middle East. Recent projects include Campus Kolding at the University of Southern Denmark, and the Copenhagen Business School in Porcelænshaven, Frederiksberg. Common to all of Henning Larsen’s projects are a strong emphasis on transparency, natural daylighting, and an environment that nurtures a spirit of open collaboration.

Cincinnati-based KZF Design was founded in 1956 and has become one of Cincinnati’s most venerable architecture firms. KZF has a well-established history of serving as architect of record on a number of notable projects at UC, including the Campus Recreation Center in association with Morphosis and the Engineering Research Center in association with Michael Graves.

KZF was also the architect of record on Zaha Hadid‘s Contemporary Arts Center in downtown Cincinnati, and was responsible for the re-cladding of the Aronoff Center at UC, home to the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning.

Henning Larsen and KZF had been shortlisted for the College of Business project in early December, along with Foster + Partners and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, both based in the United Kingdom.

To be built at the current site of the Myers Alumni Center and the unused faculty club building, the planned 250,000- to 275,000-square-foot building is anticipated to house most all of the facilities for students and faculty at the fast-growing college. Unclear at this point is the fate of the 1,601-space Campus Green Garage located immediately adjacent to the existing Lindner Hall, which is expected to be demolished once the new building is completed.

Should both be demolished, it would open up a vast space for potential construction for other uses – serving as a masterstroke of campus redevelopment that would provide much-needed classroom space, while also opening up UC’s main campus to Burnet Woods and ridding main campus of one of its most unsightly above-ground parking structures.

“Starchitecture” Is Not The Enemy Of Urbanism

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 28 December 2015.

There has been an unfortunate trend in some urbanist circles to blame architects — or at least so-called “starchitects” in particular — for all of the world’s problems, to the point where it has almost become a trope. The latest example is a recent piece by the Project for Public Spaces titled “Let’s Stop Letting Starchitects Ruin College Campuses“. In the article, the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architecture Program is singled out as a cause of rising tuition:

One of the boldest examples comes from the University of Cincinnati, which has enlisted a “murderers’ row” of architects to redesign their campus, including Frank Gehry, Michael Graves, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tschumi, and Thom Mayne. This adds up to a lot of shiny new buildings, including the crown jewel – Mr. Mayne’s exorbitant $112.9 million Campus Recreation Center, which opened in 2006.

The article follows a familiar script: cherry-pick a recent project by some notable architect and use its shortcomings, real or imaginary, as a cudgel to disparage an entire profession. Bonus points are given if the notable building in question has some quality control issues such as a leaky roof (because bland, anonymous buildings never leak and contractors never make mistakes) or if its architect has a particularly strong personality and is prone to making provocative public statements. Then sprinkle in some colorful language like “murderers’ row” to score rhetorical points.

A couple of important points to highlight before I continue:

First, I’m on the same page with the New Urbanists at least 90% of the time, so consider this a lovers’ quarrel. Walkable neighborhoods, complete streets, form-based zoning, effective public transit, eyes on the street, historic preservation, some vaguely-defined sense of place? Sign me up; I’m all for it. You’ll find that most architects strongly support such things. In fact, the Project for Public Spaces has its roots in the work of William H. Whyte, a high priest of healthy urbanism and mentor to Jane Jacobs. Whyte’s book City: Rediscovering the Center has probably had more influence on my thinking about architecture and urbanism than any other single book.

Secondly, as somebody who recently finished grad school at UC with well over six figures in student loan debt, I’m certainly not unsympathetic to the state of higher education in America these days. My parents bought their first house for less money than I’m paying for my education, and I’ll be paying for it until I’m almost at retirement age. The issue is very personal for me, and I’ll be the first to agree that higher ed is in crisis, professors are underpaid and exploited, and that quality is suffering.

But this anger toward signature architecture is severely misdirected.

Students at nearly every university are being exploited by exorbitant tuition and declining quality of education, so to blame the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architecture Program for such problems is more than a bit disingenuous. Drexel University in Philadelphia has a rundown campus consisting mostly of bland, 1950s-era buildings, and you can be certain their students are feeling the same pressures as those at UC.

Ironically, the Project for Public Spaces article has nothing but praise for Harvard, an elite private university with a $36.4 billion endowment and an acceptance rate of less than 6%, where undergraduate tuition exceeds $40,000 per year. Perhaps the author feels that a humble public university in some flyover state is getting a little too aspirational by hiring world-renown architects for its campus.

Instead of blaming rising tuition costs on architects who happen to be good at what they do, we should consider blaming bloated administrative expenses, skyrocketing salaries for university officers, and a dysfunctional financial aid system that pumps unlimited free money into university coffers while forcing graduates into decades of indentured servitude.

More broadly, it’s time to permanently retire the term “starchitect” and its variants. Within some New Urbanist circles, the word “starchitect” has become a pejorative for any architect with above-average design talent, as an insult to an entire profession lobbed by people who lack the inclination to do any research into what it actually means to be an architect. The term reflects lazy thinking, and reeks of the same anti-intellectualism of those who blithely dismiss the work of climate scientists or look at a Jackson Pollack painting and scoff, “my preschooler child could’ve painted that.”

As with the debate over the Cincinnati Streetcar, the arguments are more ideological than about the merits of any specific project. We live in a time where the entire concept of professional expertise is under fierce attack by faux-populists, usually (but not exclusively) on the right wing of the political spectrum. Universities are seen merely as trade schools, and architecture that dares to express any ideals above pure utility is immediately suspect. As the great George Carlin observed, the people in charge of our discourse only want “obedient workers ­– people who are just smart enough to run the machines” but not smart enough to question why their standard of living keeps declining. An unusual-looking building serves as a handy scapegoat while real problems behind the scenes are ignored.

Kriston Capps wrote an article in CityLab titled “In Defense of Starchitects” that nicely articulates conservative hatred toward signature architecture in the public realm:

Important architecture tends to reflect a popular mandate. High design leans liberal, as it were: Museums, libraries, university buildings, performance halls, train stations, government centers, and so on usually serve the public good (often with public funding). So a whole lot of fine architecture is anathema to movement conservatism, programmatically. Not everything: Some of the finest buildings in the world are private projects driven by corporate ambition. And conservatives are invested in who and what gets memorialized and how.

This framework helps to explain why conservative critics love to hate the “starchitect.” It’s shorthand, a way of sorting the building arts into two categories—useful architecture that conservatives should approve and wasteful architecture that conservatives should disdain—without doing any of the real and difficult work of judging design.

Starchitect Alpha: Howard Roark in The Fountainhead
Starchitect Alpha: Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

Frank Gehry seems to be the starchitect bogeyman du jour, but Thom Mayne, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Santiago Calatrava have also occupied that role at various times. To be sure, many architects have colorful personalities and distinctive bodies of work that make for entertaining gossip around the water cooler, but they are hardly representative of the profession in general.

The caricature of the architect as egomaniacal artiste can perhaps be traced back to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, based on a sociopathic architect who blows up his own project rather than see it compromised. Roark’s character was loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright, certainly known for his healthy ego and unique design sensibility. But as with most anything else conjured up by Ayn Rand, Howard Roark has little basis in reality. To his credit, Frank Lloyd Wright was so offended by Howard Roark that he disavowed any connection to Rand’s character, but the stereotype has stuck.

A few celebrity architects embrace the stereotype: Some are notorious for swooping into the studio and angrily berating a subordinate and scribbling some design ideas onto tracing paper before dashing off to a cocktail reception, leaving a room full of unpaid interns to furiously work all night to turn the scribbles into a feasible design concept. Unfortunately, sound business practices are rarely part of the curriculum in architecture school. But such models of practice are a minuscule fraction of the profession, and they’re a rapidly dying breed.

The architects who designed the new buildings on the UC campus represent an incredibly wide variety of personalities and design approaches. Some of them are arguably more successful than others (the problems with Peter Eisenman’s DAAP complex are well known), but to lump them all into one homogenous bogeyman belies a staggering ignorance about the profession. This isn’t to say that architects and their projects are above criticism, but critics should at least make the effort to do some basic research about what they’re critiquing if they want to be taken seriously.

Pop quiz: Without using Google to look it up, name the starchitect who designed the Steger Student Life Center at UC. Take your time to think about it if you need to.

Steger Center

It’s a trick question. The Steger Center wasn’t designed by a solitary “starchitect”; its design was a collaborative effort between a diverse project team at Moore Ruble Yudell in California, Cincinnati-based Glaserworks, the university, and a small army of engineers and consultants representing a multitude of disciplines. Such a collaborative design process isn’t specific to the Steger Center; it is a necessary part of the process of designing any building larger than a cabin in the woods.

I was a co-op at Moore Ruble Yudell for most of 2012, and I’ve also worked for STUDIOS Architecture, who designed the CARE/Crawley building on the east campus. The people at these firms are my friends and colleagues, and I’m incredibly fortunate to have that experience on my resume. When I read angry screeds about egomaniacal “starchitects” I certainly don’t recognize my colleagues in those descriptions, and I question whether the author has ever been inside an architecture office.

During my co-op at Moore Ruble Yudell, I was on the project team for a new student center at the University of California at Berkeley, a project with many similarities to the Steger Center. The Berkeley project was initiated by the student government to replace a decrepit facility that was in danger of failure in a major earthquake. The student council president was an indispensable member of the project team, and we took great pains to ensure that we were designing in the best interests of current and future students along with numerous other stakeholders. To read articles from authors like the Project for Pubic Spaces, though, one would be misled into thinking this was a vanity project for the university administration, and that the student body should’ve been content with a rundown building with serious seismic issues.

Eshleman Hall, University of California at Berkeley by Moore Ruble Yudell. (photo: Bruce Damonte / Architectural Record)
Eshleman Hall, University of California at Berkeley by Moore Ruble Yudell. (photo: Bruce Damonte / Architectural Record)

The hostility toward architects seems particularly acute here in Cincinnati, where so much of the city’s design culture is wrapped up in consumer branding and merchandising. Within that milieu, marketability is king and the shelf life of any design concept is measured in months before the hot new trend comes along; architects at several local firms are merely seen as the technicians who pump out the permit drawings. Too much local design work seems to be about following market trends rather than transcending them.

The shelf life of architecture is measured in decades if not centuries, and its value isn’t something that can always be quantified on a spreadsheet or market report. Designing a major academic building for a world-class university is a far more consequential undertaking than cranking out drawings for the rubber dog shit display at a few dozen Spencer Gifts locations around the country. Architects don’t have customers; we have clients, and we must satisfy multiple stakeholders with often-conflicting objectives. The client who hires the architect isn’t always the end user who occupies the building, and architects also have a legal obligation to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the general public.

For any given building, it may very well alternate between being fashionable and outdated several times over its lifespan. Yesterday’s signature building becomes today’s white elephant, which becomes tomorrow’s cherished landmark. Most of the buildings on UC’s uptown campus will be the landmarks that preservationists fight to save in a few decades. A “signature” building that lasts a century, even if the initial cost per square foot is double that of a conventional building, is far more cost-effective and sustainable than cheaply-built schlock that gets torn down and dumped into a landfill after less than 50 years. The landmarks we love so much today were often derided for being out of character when they were built, but they became landmarks because they’re exceptional. To be exceptional, by definition, is to stand out from the crowd.

Cincinnati has a cornucopia of historic architecture that, while worth preserving and celebrating, often prevents us from acknowledging that contemporary architecture can also be beautiful and of lasting quality. New buildings should always respond to their context, but too often this mandate gets interpreted in a knee-jerk manner to mean that architecture’s highest calling is to inoffensively “blend in” with its context like a chameleon, rather than standing out in a meaningful way. Instead of raising the bar, too many new buildings aim for the lowest common denominator. We end up with the architectural equivalent of a bowl of lukewarm vanilla pudding, to be consumed in a plain beige room while some smooth jazz plays softly in the background. And then people wonder why recent buildings are so uninspiring.

Time for another pop quiz. Identify the starchitect-designed structure in the photo below:


Again, it’s a trick question. As I mentioned in a recent column in this space, blaming “starchitects” for the lousy quality of our built environment is like blaming Kraftwerk for being too esoteric while Nickelback is at the top of the charts. While distinctive buildings such as those at UC garner the vast majority of media attention, we ignore the dreck that surrounds us in our daily lives: cheaply-built strip malls, McMansions, gas stations, and other architectural detritus where short-term profit is the only design principle. “Starchitects” didn’t design that or even influence it, but like a pervasive foul odor that we’ve grown accustomed to, we only take notice when somebody opens a window to let in some fresh air. The stench has become the new normal, and we lash out at the fresh air because it comes as a shock to our senses.

None of this is to imply that architects themselves should be let off the hook. The profession needs to do a much better job of opening its doors to women, people of color, and others who have traditionally been marginalized from the design process. We can’t claim to be meeting society’s needs when our profession is about as demographically diverse as a country club and “traditional” architecture is assumed, by default, to mean some variant of Western neo-classicism.

Architects also need to get their hands dirty in the political process. Our most famous architect-statesman is considered a founding father, but who have we elected lately? Over the past few decades, the architectural profession has incrementally surrendered its leadership role in creating the built environment and found itself increasingly marginalized.

Look up a donor list for any political campaign, and there’s good chance you’ll find few, if any, architects on it. Developers and contractors, however, donate in spades to ensure that laws get written in their favor. Here in Cincinnati, five of Mayor John Cranley’s top ten donors represented real estate interests in 2013, but not a single architect or architectural practice.

At the national level, the American Institute of Architects typically spends less than a million dollars on lobbying each year. By comparison, the National Association of Home Builders spends more than three times as much, and the automotive and fossil fuel industries have now been dictating our transportation policy for the better part of a century. How well has that been working out for us?

Rory Stott gets to the heart of the problem in a 2013 article for ArchDaily, describing it as a crisis of confidence within the profession:

The view of Outram and Hosey is directed against a particular sub-section of architects: on the one hand, the group we may once have referred to as “starchitects”, or, more accurately, big-name designers who are often brought in to provide an ‘icon’, or even to simply prove beyond a doubt that the entity commissioning the building “cares about good design”. On the other hand are large and usually relatively anonymous practices who are adept at satisfying the wishes of their commercial clients – the practices who make a mantra of high proportions of rentable space and low costs of construction. 

However, not all architects fit into these two groups – or at the very least many do their utmost to avoid falling into the trap – and it is these unfortunate individuals that are suffering this crisis of confidence. They are the humanists who refuse to present their work as a pure game of finance, and do not wish to reduce it to some arbitrary notion of culture for its own sake. 

They are the ones that have been sucked into a vicious chicken-and-egg cycle, where a losing struggle to maintain relevance leads to a crisis of confidence, which leads to meek design solutions, which leads to a further reduction in relevance. Which crisis came first: confidence or relevance? How did this cycle begin?

The future of the architectural profession — and along with it, the future of our built environment — doesn’t lie with design divas like Zaha and Gehry. They are yesterday’s news. Nor, we hope, does the future lie with the nameless technocrats who pump out an endless torrent of disposable schlock that will be obsolete and deteriorating before the paint has even dried. Down that path there is no future. We are facing a planetary crisis in which the built environment plays a critical role, and if architects are going to take a leadership role in solving it, that leadership must be provided by the “missing middle” of the profession that designs thoughtful, humanistic, and sustainable architecture.

Ballard Public Library by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (photo: Dennis Bratland / Wikimedia Commons)
Ballard Public Library by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (photo: Dennis Bratland / Wikimedia Commons)

Some New Urbanist critics are convinced that architecture students are brainwashed into worshiping at the feet of egomaniacal superstar architects, but speaking from my own experience at DAAP, nothing could be further from the truth. We certainly studied the superstars; in one class we spent several days picking apart Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library. But our studies were far from uncritical; we closely looked at those elements of the project that were successful along with those that were less successful. And we compared it with the less flashy but no less important Ballard Public Library by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, also in Seattle. I can’t speak for all architecture students everywhere, but based on the interest each project garnered among my classmates, the future of architecture is best exemplified by the latter project, not the former.

Rory Stott concludes:

Finally, the most important part of the process is to learn. Architects must learn about power and how it manifests itself in their design. They must learn how to wield power responsibly. This will be difficult; Foucault built an entire career around an attempt to understand power, so it’s safe to say architects will not be able to pick all this up overnight.

Fortunately, however, there is a precedent for architects to use as a guide in this endeavor: for a brief period around the 1960s, a certain type of architect thrived who had all the confidence of the modernists, but a much greater respect for the people they served, and a much greater understanding of humanist principles. Figures like Aldo van EyckHerman HertzbergerAldo RossiCarlo Scarpa and Bertrand Goldberg should be the prototypes on which the next generation of architects model themselves, as they break free from this crisis and embrace a new (and hopefully improved) era of conscientious yet confident architecture.

Fortunately, humanistic firms like Moore Ruble Yudell and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson who follow these precedents have largely supplanted the divas at the top of the architectural pecking order. It has been a decade since the AIA Firm Award, the profession’s highest honor for an architectural practice in the United States, has gone to a firm headed by somebody who could arguably be described as a “starchitect”. Recent recipients of the award include Kieran Timberlake in Philadelphia, the Miller Hull Partnership and Olson Kundig in Seattle, and Lake Flato in San Antonio. None of these firms are household names in the same way as Michael Graves or Frank Gehry, but these firms and others like them represent the next generation of “conscientious yet confident” architecture that Stott describes.

It’s time for humanistic architects to get their swagger back, and it’s time for armchair critics within the urbanist community to start paying attention, or else both parties risk being left behind in a rapidly-changing world.


Building Code Changes May Allow Higher-Density Midrise Construction

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 27 November 2015.

Changes adopted in the 2015 International Building Code (IBC), combined with advances in wood technology, may soon allow for taller midrise buildings at lower costs than what has previously been possible.

The importance of the changes to the IBC should not be overlooked, since it serves as a model building code throughout most of the United States. This means that states and local jurisdictions who lack the expertise to develop their own building code typically adopt a code written by an independent standards organization such as the International Code Council.

In fact, all 50 states and the federal government now use variations of the IBC, with the exception of Chicago which remains as the only major city in the United States with its own proprietary building code.

Under current codes, and with typical construction technology, the upper limit for a wood-frame building is five stories atop a one-story steel or concrete “podium” base that may include retail spaces, parking and/or other functions – essentially treating the two components of the building as two independent structures. What the revised IBC does is allow for the height of this podium base to be increased to more than one story, and recognizes the use of newer technologies such as cross-laminated timber in building construction.

Such “Five-Over-One” buildings are becoming increasingly common in American cities as neighborhoods within urban cores once again become desirable places to live. Local examples include U-Square at The Loop in Clifton Heights and the Gantry Apartments in Northside, both designed by Cincinnati-based CR Architecture + Design.

This building type and the forthcoming code changes offer a number of opportunities and challenges for urban neighborhoods.

The code changes are potentially good news for both the environment and affordable housing advocates. Wood construction, when it utilizes sustainable sources, is far less damaging to the environment than steel or concrete construction. It is also far less expensive, allowing new housing to be built and sold at a lower price point than would otherwise be possible.

The biggest concerns with multifamily wood-frame construction typically involve fire safety and noise transmission. Fire sprinkler systems are required throughout such projects; and while no fire protection system will ever be completely fail-safe, sprinklers prevent small fires from becoming large fires. In addition to the sprinklers, fire-rated assemblies prevent a fire from spreading from one portion of the structure to another. For example, the two-hour rated wall typically required between apartments usually consists of two layers of 5/8″ drywall on each side of 2×4 studs.

These and other measures also help prevent sound transmission between apartments.

As anybody who has lived in a large apartment building can attest, noisy neighbors can be a constant source of frustration and often form the bulk of complaints to the landlord. With wood-frame construction, the addition of resilient channels between the finish ceiling and the joists above, as well as a thin layer of concrete between the sub-floor and finish floor, can drastically reduce sound transmission.

None of this is intended as a commentary on the architectural merit of such projects, nor their appropriateness in particular neighborhoods. Building codes such as the IBC are almost solely concerned with matters of life safety and accessibility, while matters regarding density and appropriateness for a particular neighborhood would fall under the purview of local zoning codes.

As for architectural merit, such matters are up to the developer, the architect, and the community. Good taste isn’t something that can be dictated by statute.

An Inside Look At The Brand New Nippert Stadium

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 18 September 2015.

Since launching the Signature Architecture Program nearly 20 years ago, the University of Cincinnati has become a campus brimming with notable projects by talented firms such as Morphosis, Moore Ruble Yudell, Gwathmey Seigel Kaufman, and STUDIOS Architecture. Rather than merely creating an architectural petting zoo of disparate buildings designed by celebrity architects, though, the university has sought to use architecture to create a cohesive sense of place that outweighs the sum of its individual buildings.

The latest addition to this effort is the new West Pavilion at Nippert Stadium, designed by New York-based Architecture Research Office in close collaboration with Heery International. ARO served as the design architect, while Heery served as the sports consultant and executive architect. Cincinnati-based THP Limited provided structural engineering services.

In a recent article in Architect magazine, the journal for the American Institute of Architects, ARO described the project as follows:

The new West Pavilion at Nippert Stadium enhances the visitor experience and strengthens the quality of the campus as a whole. The facility provides outstanding spectator facilities in a 450-foot-long dramatic and structurally expressive building. With space for premium seating and press facilities, the new building provides a strong counterpoint to the Thom Mayne–designed recreation center that also rings the stadium. The West Pavilion is entered through a new footbridge that passes through the campus student center (Tangeman University Center) from McMicken Commons, one of the main public spaces of the University. Food service, catering, and kitchen facilities are located on every floor. All of these goals were achieved within a very constrained site that included maintaining an active fire-lane and loading dock, avoiding major campus utilities that run beneath the building, challenging construction logistics, and accelerated schedule.

The West Pavilion sits less than 10 feet from the Gwathmey building on campus, 30 feet from the Morphosis building and very close to buildings by Harry Cobb and Michael Graves.“Given the tradition of great architecture at the University of Cincinnati,” says Stephen Cassell, principal of Architecture Research Office, “having the chance to work on that campus is, in itself, an enormous honor and responsibility. This is a university that greatly values the role of design in their students’ educational experience.”

A couple hours before the Bearcats season opener on September 5, UrbanCincy was treated to an exclusive tour of the newly expanded and renovated Nippert Stadium, led by Stephen Cassell, Adam Yarinsky, and Kim Yao of ARO.

At the beginning of the tour, Stephen Cassell joked that after years of working in the confined spaces of New York City, they were looking forward to designing something for a wide-open Midwestern college campus. However, as they got involved with the project, they quickly discovered that the site was as constricted and challenging as anything in Manhattan.

In addition to the fire lane and loading dock noted above, underground vaults and utilities limited where foundations could be built; the bridge from Tangeman University Center to the West Pavilion is supported by a single, elegant V-shaped steel assembly that rests on a single footing. The footing is located where it is because there was literally nowhere else it could go.

As anybody who has ever gotten an obstructed-view seat at Wrigley Field can attest, adequate sightlines to the playing field are a critical part of any sports facility, and Nippert Stadium is no exception. However, Nippert presented the additional challenge of maintaining views into the stadium from the campus itself.

Once described as the Wrigley Field of college football because of its history and intimacy, Nippert Stadium forms a massive Roman-style amphitheater at the center of the campus, and is tightly woven into the fabric of the campus like no other college football stadium.

ARO sited the West Pavilion and raised it above the ground plane in order to preserve views into the stadium from MainStreet — the central pedestrian corridor on campus — on the north end of the site and the plaza adjacent to the College – Conservatory of Music at the south end. The dramatic cantilevers are made possible by a system of diagonal steel columns, which form a visual motif that appears throughout the facility. Ancillary functions such as restrooms and concession stands were tucked partially underground, taking advantage of the campus topography to maintain Nippert’s famed sense of openness. Visibility from the West Pavilion onto the playing field was also meticulously studied: the shape and depth of the window mullions were carefully considered and the front edges of the press box counters were notched to achieve the required sightlines.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Nippert Stadium is its flexibility of uses. When not being used for a game or other event, the stands and playing field are open to students for frisbee, informal pickup football games, jogging, studying, and other uses. Unlike most football venues, it doesn’t sit empty for 350-plus days a year, and ARO worked to ensure the West Pavilion would also have the flexibility to be used for year-round events such as receptions, meetings, and social gatherings. In this sense, the West Pavilion becomes an extension of the adjacent Tangeman University Center rather than a mere press box for a football stadium.

The West Pavilion’s material palette is tastefully restrained and relates to the other adjacent buildings, each with its own impressive architectural pedigree. The pattern of the cast concrete evokes the Campus Recreation Center by Morphosis, and the gray steel structural members relate to the zinc cladding of the Tangeman University Center by Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman, and the Steger Student Life Center by Moore Ruble Yudell.

A few finishing touches were still in the works at the time of this writing, including caps on the window mullions and a series of diagonal fins on the west facade that will provide visual depth to the cladding and cast shadows that change throughout the day.

In addition to the West Pavilion itself, ARO also designed enhancements throughout the rest of the stadium. Visitors to the stands on the east side of the stadium will enjoy improved access to the stands via a new second-level walkway cantilevered from the existing structure, as well as improved restrooms and concession facilities.

ARO has had a close relationship with the University of Cincinnati over the years; Stephen Cassell and Adam Yarinsky are frequent guest jurors at the university’s renown College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, and a number of DAAP students have received co-op placements at ARO in New York.

Architecture as Experience: The Case for Excellence in Design

Originally published in UrbanCincy.com on 20 May 2015.

During a press conference this past October, superstar architect Frank Gehry responded to criticism of his work by raising his middle finger to a Spanish journalist and saying, “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98% of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”

Gehry’s sharp retort sparked a firestorm in the press; op-ed pieces in The New York Times, Forbes, Architect Magazine, and countless blogs have chimed in with their own responses, and the inevitable responses to the responses soon followed. Despite the brash way in which the conversation started, it is a conversation about our built environment that is welcome and long overdue.

The Inescapable Art

"I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build." -- Howard Roark in The Fountainhead
“I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build.” — Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, described architecture as the inescapable art. “You don’t have to go to a play that the theater critic pans, a movie that the film critic hates or a restaurant where, according to the food critic’s taste buds, the chef can’t cook,” Kamin writes, but terrible reviews won’t make buildings disappear, and the public can be stuck with the consequences of bad design for decades. Architecture — good, bad, or mediocre — forms the setting in which we live out our lives and it affects us in profound ways whether we consciously realize it or not. Good design is more than just superficial window dressing; it’s the difference between Mac OS X and a Unix terminal prompt, and it’s the difference between a city that’s an attractive destination and a city that merely exists.

Cincinnati is blessed with a cornucopia of notable architecture that other cities in its league can only dream of having. In addition to the well-known favorites like Union Terminal, Carew Tower, and Music Hall, there is also a wide variety of contemporary architecture that has helped put Cincinnati back on the cultural map. In addition to the usual cast of flamboyant “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Zaha Hadid, Cincinnati is also home to projects by less flashy but no less talented firms like Moore Ruble Yudell, Architecture Research Office, and Gwathmey Seigel Kaufman. There are also homegrown firms such as FRCH, Glaserworks, and John Senhauser Architects creating notable projects in Cincinnati and beyond.  When it comes to the quality of its built environment, Cincinnati punches far above its weight.

The sad irony, though, is that relatively little of what gets built today is actually designed by architects. Despite the resurgence of the urban cores of Cincinnati and other cities throughout the country, most new construction is still in the suburbs and exurbs, planned and designed by developers and retail chains according to carefully-honed formulas created to guarantee the greatest return on the dollar within the shortest period of time.

Suburban “McMansions” aren’t designed by architects to be lived in; they’re designed by developers to look good on realtor listings and be sold. Big-box retail stores, fast food outlets, and car dealerships are built from prototypes designed not to inspire or to even be pleasant, but to generate short-term profits with maximum efficiency. Some nameless architect may have stamped the construction documents somewhere along the process to ensure the structure meets applicable codes, but his or her influence on the end user experience was likely minimal at best. In the case of most single-family houses built by developers, an architect was not likely to have been involved at all.

False Choices

This is no doubt the “98% of what gets built and designed today” that Gehry was referring to, but it has remained largely unmentioned while pundits squabble over the implications of his diatribe. Some commentators have chosen to blame celebrity architects such as him for the current state of our built environment, nostalgically harking back to some mythical past in which architecture was driven by the local vernacular. What they fail to mention is that, like it or not, badly-designed sprawl is the vernacular today, and it has gone global. Blaming a few starchitects for the quality of our built environment is like bashing Kraftwerk for being too esoteric while the latest Nickelback album is at the top of the charts.

That said, architects and architectural academics are often accused of being elitist and out of touch with reality, and in many cases the criticism is well-deserved. Too many architects have read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as the manifesto it was meant to be rather than as the cautionary tale it should have been. Architecture is a collaborative discipline above all else, and there is no room at the table for an ego the size of Howard Roark’s. Too often, the prestigious design awards and glossy magazine articles have been for projects built for sheer spectacle rather than for lasting quality. Spectacle is what sells magazines and generates fodder for discussion around the water cooler, but sometimes the most appropriate design solution is to do less designing. Being a conscientious architect means knowing when to make that call.

What’s missing from the discussion is the vast middle ground between avant-garde starchitecture and crowd-pleasing vernacular design, and the idea that architecture, above all else, should be a human experience, rather than an abstract object to behold or a mere commodity to the bought and sold. It’s not a question of modernism versus traditionalism or suburban versus urban; it’s a question of bad versus good.

Healthy cities need an attractive mix of architecture; this mix includes high-profile starchitecture, anonymous background buildings, new and old, traditional and modernist, and everything in between. What matters is that what gets built is of consistently high design quality. A smattering of notable buildings within a context of ugly schlock is insufficient; what’s needed is a cohesive cityscape of well-designed buildings where the overall quality of the urban experience is greater than the sum of its architectural parts. To use a baseball analogy, one or two sluggers won’t save the season if the rest of the team is in a slump.

Good design doesn’t just happen; property owners and the general public need to realize its value, and commission talented architects who will deliver it. Samuel Hannaford didn’t leap out from behind a bush one night and create Music Hall by sheer force of will; Music Hall exists because the City of Cincinnati wanted a venue befitting its highest cultural aspirations, and they commissioned Hannaford to design it. Music Hall, while notable enough in its own right, also exists within the fabric of a historic neighborhood. Relatively few of the neighborhood’s Italianate row houses would be particularly notable as individual structures, but together they form the streetscape of Over-the-Rhine, one of the largest intact historic districts in the country. Music Hall and its surrounding neighborhood enhance and compliment each other in ways that would be impossible if either existed in isolation.

Engineering Value

Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio (photo: Timothy Hursley)
Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio [Timothy Hursley]

Cost considerations are often touted as an excuse for poor design, but this is a cop-out. It’s easy to clad a terrible building in exotic materials and pass it off as a notable work of architecture (see: numerous projects developed by Donald Trump), but a talented architect can creatively turn cost constraints into a brilliant design solution.

The iconic cross-braces on Chicago’s John Hancock Center meant being able to eliminate a third of the structural steel that would’ve otherwise been required for a building that tall. At a much smaller scale, Auburn University’s Rural Studio designs hand-built structures of sublime beauty for disadvantaged communities in rural Alabama. These structures, often created from recycled materials and found objects, cost pennies on the dollar compared to more typical construction.

When Washington, DC was planning its Metro system, the transit authority assumed the cheapest way to construct the underground stations was to give them straight vertical walls covered in tile, flat ceilings, and a forest of columns similar to what’s found on older subway systems. Their architect, Harry Weese, was able to demonstrate that a vaulted station shell made of waffle-slab concrete actually cost less to build than a more conventional design. This motif became the most celebrated design feature of the system, subtly recalling the coffered ceilings of the District’s neoclassical civic monuments but without reflexively copying them.

What is Good?

All this talk of good architecture begs the question: What does it mean to be good? Is it something that can’t be defined, but we know it when we see it? Aaron Betsky, former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and now Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, recently penned an article that explicitly addresses this question:

I do not think there is one style or one approach that has all the answers. I am wary of what I think are pseudo-scientific approaches to measuring such things, though I am open to ways in which we can more clearly articulate and judge what is good and what works. However, instead of taking solace in formulas or a rote recitations of traditions, we should always ask the question what is appropriate, what is needed, what is possible, and what are our dreams and aspirations. We should build with what we know, for a reality, but also towards a better — again in a social, environmental, and aesthetic sense — reality.

Betsy concludes the article by saying, “Architecture should be neither weird nor boring, neither alien nor alienating, neither wasteful nor wanting in the qualities that make us human.”

To this I might add: In order to be good, architecture should be honest in its materiality and its place in history, and be responsive to its context. Wood should look like wood and not be painted to look like marble. A building built in 2015 shouldn’t attempt to look like a building built in 1895. A sentimental appeal to nostalgia is no excuse for faux-traditional buildings that cheapen their context with knee-jerk imitation, but a building designed for downtown Cincinnati should be sufficiently distinguishable from a building designed for a suburban office park in Southern California.

Good architecture should engage all the senses in a meaningful way, and acknowledge the web of meanings and experiences that we have come to associate with the built environment. Brick is more than just a cladding material; it imparts a sense of stability and permanence. Glass and stainless steel are associated with notions of high-tech precision. A fireplace is more than just a decorative feature in the living room; the sound and smell of burning firewood recalls fond memories of family camping trips, a bonfire on the beach during a church retreat, or a brisk fall evening with close friends on the patio at Neons. A door made of solid wood has a more substantial feel to the hand than a flimsy hollow door made of pressed paper, even if they both look the same at first glance. Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, these things matter.

Local Interest

The discussion about the nature of our built environment has been happening in Cincinnati for quite some time; debates about the streetcar, gentrification, redeveloping the riverfront, form-based codes, and historic preservation all revolve around what kind of place Cincinnati wants to be. Is it a place where one merely goes to see a Reds game once or twice a year before getting back on the freeway to a house in the suburbs, or is it a place to live and work 24/7 throughout the year? Is it a dumping ground for the indigent, a playpen for the affluent, or home to a diverse mix of people and activities? All these issues are closely related to matters of design.

The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published an angry screed by Hyde Park architect Robert-Pascal Barone that sharply criticizes a number of recent projects. Although the article contained a few valid points, the overall tone read as a shrill rejection of anything built in the city after 1950, which undermined the possibility of a constructive dialogue.

This was an unfortunate missed opportunity, because it’s a dialogue that needs to happen. Belligerent naysaying does nothing to improve the city, but even the most successful projects are not exempt from intelligent critiques that offer lessons for future projects. Cincinnati has progressed beyond the point where new development for the sake of new development, no matter how ill-conceived, should get the red carpet treatment by default. The city deserves top-shelf design, and is now in a position to demand it.

Moving Forward

There is reason to be optimistic that we are once again making good architecture a priority. For the past 20 years, the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architect Program has raised the profile of the university and has led to UC consistently appearing on lists of the world’s most beautiful college campuses. More importantly, it has greatly enhanced the quality of campus life and has had a snowball effect on other projects around town.

In recent years the city has stepped up its efforts to save and preserve the architectural landmarks that previous generations have built. The dilapidated Metropole has been beautifully reborn as the 21c Museum Hotel, Hamilton Country taxpayers recently approved a modest sales tax increase to restore Union Terminal, and the long-awaited restoration of Music Hall continues to gain support and funding.

Much work remains: the Terrace Plaza Hotel still sits vacant downtown, and despite the pace of redevelopment in Over-the-Rhine and other close-in neighborhoods, each year sees a number of vulnerable structures succumb to neglect or outright greed. The city needs to be more proactive about preserving its history, rather than merely reacting when a problem becomes a crisis.

Smaller cities like Cincinnati have a unique role to play in the design world, and offer advantages of access and affordability not found in the usual hot spots like New York and San Francisco. In a recent CityLab article titled Why Architects and Second-Tier Cities Need Each Other, Amanda Kolson Hurley notes:

New York, Boston, Chicago, and other major metros have a lot of construction activity, but also a lot of architects. It’s a competitive field made more so by the sheer number of talented firms in the same handful of cities. That contributes to the culture of stress and overwork that many architects bemoan, some of them — women in particular — even leaving the field in frustration. By contrast, an ambitious architecture practice can carve out a niche for itself in a second-tier city, where the scene is often dominated by “legacy” firms that play it safe.

Hurley goes on to highlight the example of Louisville-based De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop, which recently won an AIA Honor Award for their Wild Turkey visitor center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Neither Roberto De Leon nor Ross Primmer are Louisville natives; they met in architecture school at Harvard and made a business decision to open their practice in Louisville because, like Cincinnati, it was primed for growth. Cincinnati has the additional advantage of being home to one of the top architecture schools in the country, and many faculty members have their own small practices producing innovative design.

Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky (photo: De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop)
Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky [De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop]

Cincinnati would do well to aggressively harness that local talent as well as put out the welcome mat for transplants from outside the region. Fairly or unfairly, Cincinnati has a reputation for being a conservative, insular city that is wary of outside ideas and talent. As such, it needs to work extra hard to put that stereotype out to pasture. Civic and corporate leaders should make a point to consider emerging architects for new projects and include them in discussions about the city’s future. For its part, the architectural community needs to resist its natural inclination to circle the wagons, and make an effort to engage the public and ensure their needs are being met when designing new projects.

Most importantly, the general public needs to demand a consistently high standard of design and hold its leaders accountable when opportunities are missed. Uncritical boosterism is often a veneer for complacency, which is a far more destructive force than vigorous debate. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked. Cincinnati has a rich history and enviable assets, but it cannot rest on its laurels. No city has ever made itself a prime destination by bragging about how magnificent it used to be.

Get Involved

At the national level, the American Institute of Architects has launched an ambitious media campaign to highlight the role of architects in shaping our built environment, and by extension, the role of the built environment in shaping our lives. The campaign features web videos, television ads, and social media content under the hashtag #ilookup.

For those wishing to become more involved in conversations about the future of Cincinnati’s built environment, the Cincinnati chapter of the AIA and the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati have full calendars of activities and events, and the annual ArchiNATI festival offers unique opportunities to engage with the city’s built environment.

In addition to the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, other nearby architecture schools at Miami University, the University of Kentucky, and Ohio State University routinely host lectures and other events throughout the year that are usually free and open to the public.

If all that sounds daunting, start by simply grabbing a sketchpad and heading off to explore some corner of the city that looks interesting. Look up, and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

The Clockmaker’s House

People grow up and grow old, and if they have children, those offspring will likely see the day when their grandparents and parents die and are laid to rest. And then those offspring have kids of their own, and the cycle continues. That’s the natural order of things, and if that natural order is somehow disrupted – say, if a parent buries a child – then something has gone terribly wrong. But under normal circumstances, we’ll live long enough to see our elders grow old and reach the twilight of their lives. First our grandparents, and then eventually our parents. In the back of our heads we know it’s coming, and that it’s how the world is supposed to work. Like clockwork.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself, but somehow that never makes it any easier when it becomes apparent that somebody who has always been a part of your life won’t be part of it forever.

My first grandparent to die was my paternal grandmother, when I was in middle school. She had been in poor health for many years due to diabetes and heart disease, and it didn’t come as much of a surprise when her ailments finally became more than her body could handle. My next grandparent to pass on was my material grandfather a couple years later, due to leukemia. A couple years after that, it was my paternal grandfather. He died of a rare form of cancer in his muscles, probably related to his working in a steel foundry in rural England as a child. God knows what he was exposed to in that place.

Both my grandfathers lived into their 80’s, and I figure once you live that long, you’re pretty much on borrowed time. If ailment X doesn’t get you, then ailment Y is lurking right around the corner. This isn’t to trivialize their passing or make light of the mourning felt by those they left behind, but they both lived long, full lives, had relatively short illnesses, died peacefully surrounded by people who loved them, and left the world a better place than they had found it. We should all hope for so much.

That leaves my maternal grandmother as the last surviving member of that generation in my family. Technically, she’s my step-grandmother, as my true material grandmother died of complications from breast cancer at an early age, years before I was born. My mother’s father remarried, and my mother’s stepmother would become, for all practical purposes, my grandmother.

Like the Energizer Bunny, she simply refuses to stop living. Now 86 years old, she’s still sharp as a tack, and as sweet and good-natured as ever. Always quick with a laugh or a compliment, she vaguely reminds me of “Granny” from the Looney Tunes cartoons: endearing and motherly on the outside, and tough as nails on the inside. She’ll always be there to offer you a bowl of ice cream, but don’t you dare try to reach into the birdcage and grab Tweety. I’ve never once seen her raise her voice, but even as kids, we knew that misbehaving in her house simply wasn’t an option.

And what a house it was. My earliest memories are of a simple split-level ranch house in Milford, but for the past 20-some years she’s been living in a little yellow house in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Madisonville, just a block from the Mariemont municipal boundary. More significant than the house itself, though, were the things it contained. My late material grandfather built and restored old clocks as a hobby, and the place is loaded with them. Floor-standing grandfather clocks, wall clocks, clocks that sit on shelves, you name it. They were all in impeccable condition. In the basement was his workshop, loaded with woodworking tools and all the clock-related spare parts you could imagine. And given that this was the German side of my family, everything was impeccably organized and labeled. A little drawer full of clock gears here, and another little drawer full of clock hands there. Craft was a strong tradition on that side of the family; my grandfather Monte Hillerich was the grandson of Bud Hillerich of Hillerich & Bradsby fame, the family-owned company that continues to make Louisville Slugger baseball bats a few miles downriver from Cincinnati.

On Saturday afternoons, he’d go around the house and wind up the clocks for the week. He deliberately kept them unsynchronized by a few minutes so that the entire house wouldn’t erupt into a cacophony of chimes every hour, on the hour. But beginning at around five minutes before the hour, a clock on the wall would chime. A few seconds later, a grandfather clock in the other room. Then another clock out in the hallway. This would continue for roughly ten minutes. Each clock had a sound that was as unique as its visual appearance. The chimes on the grandfather clock in the living room had a deeper, subtle pitch, while the little brass clock that sat under a glass dome on a nearby shelf had a more metallic, high-pitched chime.

In addition to the clocks were the antique furniture, family heirlooms, chinaware, photographs, artwork, and various other knickknacks. The house was like a museum for my maternal side of the family. Like the clocks, everything was kept impeccably clean and orderly.

The house — first out in Milford and then in Madisonville — always seemed like a refuge when I was growing up. Most family gatherings were at the house of my paternal grandparents in Fort Thomas, mainly because it was much closer to us, and such gatherings were usually pretty chaotic affairs with aunts and uncles talking, and small kids running around.

Visiting Grandma Hillerich’s house, though, was always a special occasion. The drive was a bit longer and involved crossing a large bridge, and the house was much more calm and orderly than anything on the Kentucky side of the river. I have fond memories of quietly playing with Tinker Toys in front of the fireplace in the family room while the adults carried on adult conversations nearby. All the clocks on the walls and my grandfather’s meticulous workshop in the basement were a constant source of fascination. Before we got into the car to head back home, my grandmother would always prepare a “goody bag” for me and my siblings, a small sandwich bag filled with a few candies and treats for each of us.

In 1988, while we were living in coastal South Carolina and Hurricane Hugo was threatening to wipe the state off the map, we evacuated to Cincinnati and stayed with my maternal grandparents for a few days. I remember watching the live reports on CNN from the house’s family room as Hugo battered the hell out of Charleston. My grandfather was already sick with leukemia at that time, and it would be the last time I saw him.

My grandmother, now a widow for the second time, had the house to herself and did her best to take care of it. Family members and neighbors helped her out, and she remained active in her little church just up the street on Plainville Road. I continued my nomadic lifestyle of moving around to various locations throughout the country, but tried to visit my grandmother whenever I found myself back in Cincinnati. She was as spry as ever, and the house itself hardly changed. It still felt like a place of refuge, the one remaining element of my childhood in Cincinnati that had been a constant throughout my life, no matter where I was living or what sort of trouble I was getting myself into. Grandma would always be there to welcome me into the home, remark about how tall I’ve gotten, ask me why I’m still single, and catch up with all that’s happening in my life. The clocks would chime, and like always, she wouldn’t let me escape the house without giving me some sort of treat to take home with me. On some level I hoped that, for as long as I lived, I could always come back here and find Grandma Hillerich among all the clocks, ready to give me a hug and a goody bag.

But that’s not how it works. A couple months ago she took a nasty fall at church and broke her arm. She wasn’t seriously injured, but the incident prompted the decision to move her into an assisted living facility out in the suburbs, closer to some relatives. The house, which had been a place of refuge throughout my life, is now being slowly emptied of its contents, and will soon be put on the market. I understand all the clocks, save for the large grandfather clock in the living room, have now been sold off.

I paid one final visit to the house a few weeks ago with my mother. The clocks had been appraised, and were lying on tables with little price tags attached to them. The house’s other contents were being divvied up among the relatives, and the place had the look of a garage sale. The walls that had once held clocks and family photos were now mostly empty. The house, which I had always known as being full of laughter, now felt like a silent, empty shell. That last remaining spatial connection to my childhood is now gone.

I always knew there would come a day when that house would no longer be there for me, and I knew it would be painful. But I didn’t know it would hurt quite so much.