Aronoff Addition - A Field Guide to Meta-Narratives
The answer came to me one day as I was guiding an unsuspecting Kentucky family through the Architectural Wonder of the decade. Struggling hopelessly to answer their shrugs of incomprehension, I decided, finally, to forgo the "Tracings" stuff and just make something up.
Visibly relieved by my plausible explanation, they nodded in approval and admiration. Since then, I've been a very convincing tour guide, and I've learned to tailor my theories to the audience of the moment. Here are some of my favorites, which I've filed under "Plausible Meta-Narratives about The Aronoff Center that Anyone Can Understand."
The Parking Garage Theory
In this explanation, I tell people the Aronoff addition is actually not a new building at all, but an adaptive reuse of a former parking garage. This is why there is a long, dramatic ramp from an inconsequential parking lot.
The awkward but spacious internal circulation, the trapezoidal rooms, and the odd kilter of the exterior facade are all results of this inventive reuse. This theory also explains the noisy and low-ceilinged seminar rooms, the generous unusable space, and the cheap materials.
I like to use this theory when I'm talking to taxpayers from Ohio, since it allows us to appear both thrifty and innovative.
The Shopping Mall Theory
In this theory, forward-looking UC administrators have cleverly prepared for the eventual demise of those high-maintenance and pretentious architecture, design, and art programs. The Aronoff building is actually a turn-key project devised by a developer, who will someday convert it to an upscale shopping mall.
The University can thus make mountains of money out of what is now a net-loss situation. Among other design features, this theory explains the basic concept of the building, which is an inwardly focused, multi-tiered, central atrium looking down on a food court.
The dean's office has already started to display T-shirts for sale in its "shop windows," making the ready conversion to a Gap store even more plausible. I reckon Armani needs only a wire mannequin to take over the stunning art gallery (better stock plenty of black shirts).
The circulation through the building is disorienting enough that shoppers will be forced to walk much farther than they really need to, just like in a real mall. The classy, attention-getting exterior needs only a large lighted sign to make this work, although I do think it will be hard to lease the top floor.
Both liberals and conservatives find this theory convincing. For liberals, this explanation reinforces their anxiety about the Death of Art. Conservatives like it, because, well, ...it's such a neat idea.
Help! I'm Stuck in 1980s TV Theory
If classical architecture can be described as frozen music (as Goethe fans endlessly remind us), the Aronoff addition is frozen TV—unfortunately, frozen in 1988, the year the building was actually designed.
This was the year of in-your-face, whites-only MTV, and the beginning of all that computer-generated title stuff—the rectangles and typefaces that rotate, zoom, slide, and fold before slipping away. Weird camera angles, nervous cinematography, and Miami Vice colors (it's been 12 years, OK?) complete the inspiration.
This theory explains the ease of transforming the building directly into letterhead (try that with St. Peter's). People from France love this story, and most print reporters are gullible enough to buy it, too.
I could go on, telling you about the "Required Too Much Memory" theory (for techno-heads), the "Crashed Jetliner" theory (a student choice) and the ever-popular "Medici Wannabe" theory (odds-on faculty favorite).
But this is such a fun game, I think we should let everyone play, not just the pros. If you, dear reader, have a Plausible Meta-Narrative That Anyone Can Understand, please write to me at University of Cincinnati.
Right now I'm in the market for theories that are appropriate for feminists, National Guardsmen, or members of the Modern Language Association. Remember, there are no rules and any reading is as valid as the next. Won't you please help?
Brenda Case Scheer, AIA is an associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Cincinnati. She is a principal of Scheer & Scheer, Inc. and the 2000 recipient of the SOM Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism Prize.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of ArchitectureBoston.