The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture
by Matthew C. Hagen
With the recent one-year anniversary of the Ohio Union, architecture students have, once again, been portrayed as a bunch of elitists having no real world understandings. Media and university laymen have criticized architecture students to the point that where it would be untrendy to not to. The most recent example of this can be found in our campus newspaper, The Lantern, in an opinion editorial entitled “Hugging a building should be ‘platonic’” by Brad Miller. Miller’s criticism of architecture students stems from last year’s protests at the Ohio Union’s opening. For some reason the public invalidated the perspective of architecture students and this may because of a misunderstanding. The protests represented more than the media portrayed and it’s time to clarify this topic.
One must take a step back to a year ago, when this whole issue began in the public arena. Architecture students protested, and unlike most acts of ideas in our society, this one caught the attention of the media. The most salient media coverage was from a video the Columbus Dispatch placed on their website. The video consisted of an interview with the architecture students’ representative, Gregory Delaney, and juxtaposed footage of other students celebrating the building. The video started out with students jubilantly clapping and singing including a student, Matt Zabiegala, commenting that the Ohio Union “embodies what we like as students” and “what we want to see.” As typically found with the media, The Dispatch cut up Delaney’s interview leaving a few clips – the most important regarding the design of the building missing design opportunities. Delaney argued that The Ohio Union served as an example against the interest of the university, or that the Ohio Union “doesn’t embody the spirit of Ohio State and its progressive attitude towards the future.”
This demonstrates what is perplexing in our field. Architecture to an outside individual might simply represent an external appearance. After reading Miller’s article defending campus architecture, it’s clear that he sees architecture that way. Delaney asks, “Have critics of the protests really looked around the Oval?” OSU’s architecture is eclectic, and trying to pin down a style is working against the history and tradition of the university.
While clips from video and articles will make you believe that the protest was about the Ohio Union’s design, the real purpose of the protests was to stimulate a discussion of design at The Ohio State University and in society. So…what type of architecture should a progressive university embody?
The protested campus design issues have an unseen layer of reason. For those not familiar with architectural practice in Columbus, designing with The Ohio State University leaves a lot to be desired. The complicated process involves working with many people of different expertise, who all want to ensure that their interests are demonstrated in the design. Most of these people can be located in the department of Facilities Operation and Development. Additional parties include the user, who puts up the money for the project, and a variety of miscellaneous individuals who ensure the enforcement of campus protocols. On top of that, any given project requires around 30 signatures from people at each step of the design process (conceptual, schematic design, design development, construction documents).
The Ohio Union is a salient example of OSU’s design process. This building is chock-full of disturbing practices for the architectural profession. Facts supporting the difficult design process begin with the original design architect, Michael Dennis, leaving the job in the middle of the project. Further insults to the profession involved the relationship of the user, Student Life, with the architect, Moody Nolan Inc. Student Life came to Moody Nolan Inc. specifying space arrangements and “requested” each space have a different feel. These requests included specifying over 40 different carpet patterns.
It has become the norm for relationships between designers and the university to become so tense that architects leave the job prematurely. This occurred with the design of the Student Academic Services Building, but the most impressive example involves the current lawsuit between OSU and Karlsberger Architecture Inc. That lawsuit regards OSU’s midstream dismissal of the firm from their position as architect of record on an OSU Medical Center expansion project.
What would one think if a patient started telling the doctor how to perform surgery, or the client told the attorney how to proceed with a case? The Ohio State system requires this odd relationship. In a way OSU has democratized a profession with participants outside the field. Like our government, where everyone has equal voting power while only a few are competent in a given subject. Architects have the ability to negotiate and compromise, but with OSU’s democratization, the only thing left to compromise is the design and the architectural profession.
The protests were meant to bring light to the current erosion of our profession and campus design by both the public and the university. Compromising these two ideas are not an option and architecture students should not sit idle.