Cincinnati Student Center by Moore Ruble Yudell
Further along, the stairs recede and the base is enhanced by a series of brick columns that raise the zinc-clad mass of the building to accommodate easy access to retail services at street level as well as the upper floors of the building, which house student organizations and student support functions.
Just below the grand arch that opens the center of the building and connects it to the quadrangle above, those columns form a cloistered walkway, providing a formal sense of arrival for a campus art gallery and an interesting path for the curious pedestrian.
The Steger Center is part of a trio of buildings that share a common design language and materials, the others being Thom Mayne's Campus Recreation Center and Charles Gwathmey's Tangeman University Center. The Recreation Center and the University Center form the southern edge of Main Street, but since their purposes are different, their bases are less permeable and their assets most evident in their interiors. Therefore, the transparency and variety of the Steger Center make the greatest contribution to the open space that provides Main Street with its urban vibe.
So let's look more deeply into the elements that make the building so successful.
While an entrance is often a focal point for a building, the Steger Center has numerous entry points, each with a different character. Additionally, since the building is narrow — only 40 feet (12 meters) wide at most points — it has only two important sides, not four. What would typically be the east and west elevations disappear into endpoints reminiscent of a ship's prow. But one might question: how does this work?
The west end of the building creates a grand gesture of entry, not into the building but into the space between the Steger Center and Swift Hall to its north. Entrances into the Steger Center and Swift become secondary to this entry between the two buildings, which begins as a carpet of Carnelian granite at McMicken Commons and transitions the grade very gently, incorporating both an accessible ramp and shallow steps. The vertical nature of this entrance is capped by a sawtooth roof that terminates the vertical space and provides a canopy for the bridges that connect the two buildings.
Back on the south face, the shallow steps expand to create the previously described stadium steps, which function both as a "couch" for the campus's living room and as a device for navigating the changing grade. Gradually, these steps move people to the street level, where they can enter the first retail space on Main Street, a business center. Here, the base of the building becomes transparent, and the concrete pavers that cover Bearcat Plaza extend through the building and create a grand portal, a ceremonial entry and exit to the plaza from the quadrangle behind the Steger Center.
Proceeding east along the south face of the building, a common grade is maintained to permit easy access to the next retail space. In order to accomplish this across the topography, the stadium steps again become the building's footing on the ground, receding only as they reach the building's primary entrance and elevator core. Past this main entrance, the steps again easily provide for the grade differentials that continue along Main Street. Along this route are entrances to street-level offices and the gallery space.
These entrances are enhanced by another unique feature of the building's base — a cloistered walk, or arcade, that produces an intermediate space between the granite stadium steps and the building envelope. The arcade is created by a series of columns that touch the granite steps and lift the building off the ground to the office level one floor above.
In order to provide a common floor elevation for the office space, the arcade columns vary in length, gracefully accommodating the tremendous change in grade along Main Street. Not only does the arcade successfully lift the building off the ground, but it permits the building to become fully integrated with the activity on Main Street and creates a quiet interplay of light and shadow for anyone who chooses to enter it.
As the last retail space is approached at the east end of the building, the arcade ends and the steps fall away once again, exposing a simple brick base. Just beyond, the north and south facades come together to create the eastern prow of the building, but not an eastern facade.
This point is also the eastern entrance to the intimate space on the building's north side, which is dramatically different from the open space on Main Street. A narrow void between the center and Baldwin Quadrangle has been transformed into a soft and inviting space known as the Mews Gardens. On this side, a series of terraces address the change in grade and create small gardens filled with outdoor sculpture and seating spaces for quiet conversation and studying.
At the other end of the void, a grand stair rises up and connects visually to the transparent bridges that connect the Steger Center directly with the classrooms in the classical Swift Hall. The northern facade is simple and calm, and the scale reduced. Here, the building's base plays its more traditional role of meeting the ground. There are no arcades or stadium steps, and so the grade variations are dealt with in a different way.
In the Mews Gardens, stairs separate the small gardens and accommodate the grade variations. Throughout the Mews, large glass windows fill much of the space between the columns on the building, and light flows out from the interior spaces to enliven the gardens at night. This open relationship, in turn, draws the landscape into the ground floor of the building. Plant material, textured pavement, and architectural artifacts become, in essence, part of the building's base, making it three-dimensional.
And while this function is invisible to most, the Mews also serves a practical purpose: to allow vertical separations between Swift, Baldwin, and Rhodes Halls that are necessary to accommodate truck service lanes, a loading dock, and numerous level variations in adjacent buildings.
One additional element — lighting — adds to the overall impact of this building. On Main Street, subtle lighting is provided by rows of reflective fixtures and borrowed light from interior spaces along both sides of the street. In the Mews, the lighting is primarily provided by the interior of the Steger Center and is only amplified by fixtures hidden in the landscape, maintaining the intimate quality of the space.
The dynamic and varied qualities of the Steger Center play a special role on the University of Cincinnati campus. The southern facade, so strong and active, contributes to the urban edge and energy of Main Street. The northern facade, more reserved and quiet, provides a place for privacy and repose.
The combined effect of these elements contributes greatly to the profound sense of place that now defines the University of Cincinnati campus. That the Steger Center does this in ways that don't shout their importance on a first encounter, but rather reveal themselves over time, only makes the building more remarkable.
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Ron Kull, FAIA, was formerly the university architect at the University of Cincinnati, where he managed a physical transformation of the campus that included construction of the Steger Student Life Center. He was previously the supervisor of architecture and facility management for the City of Cincinnati, and is now a senior associate at GBBN Architects.
This article is excerpted from Arc of Interaction by Moore Ruble Yudell, copyright © 2008, with permission of the publisher, ORO editions.
Project: Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Client: University of Cincinnati
Design Architect: Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners
Associate Architect: glaserworks
Mews Gardens Design: Moore Ruble Yudell with glaserworks
Contractor: Dugan & Meyers Construction Company
Main Street Master Plan: Hargreaves Associates
Landscape Architect: Hargreaves Associates
Structural Engineer: Arup
Mechanical & Electrical Engineer: Arup
MEP Consultant: Heapy Engineering LLP
Cost Consultant: Cronenberg & Company Inc.
Civil Engineer: Infrastructure Services Inc.
Code Consultant: Brashear-Bolton
Construction Manager: Messer Construction
Graphic Design & Wayfinding: Kolar Design with Marcia Shortt
Furniture: Design Details Inc.