Monday, April 16, 2012


At Uptown, a pair of mixed-use apartment and retail buildings under construction in University Circle, developer MRN and architect Stanley Saitowitz get the urbanism mostly right, and deserve credit for their efforts.  The project is being built at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 115th Street (just north of Mayfield Road) in collaboration with several institutions and non-profits, including University Circle, Inc., Case Western Reserve University, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

 Uptown North Building, looking south on Euclid Avenue.

The developer and the architect made two important decisions that contribute to the project’s success from an urban design standpoint. 
§     First, MRN chose to make the project mixed-use.  This is significant because, by including both retail and housing, the development will invigorate the neighborhood with both commerce and new inhabitants on the streets.  MRN went further to ensure success by pursuing leases with a good variety of retailers. These include magnet tenants like Barnes & Noble books and Constantino’s market.  MRN also made sure that there will be a mix of price points for the eateries that are going into the project.  Diversity enables success.


§     Second, MRN and Saitowitz decided to bring the building facades right up to the sidewalk and to place parking behind the north structure.  These moves give the street a sense of enclosure and definition, making it more comfortable and welcoming to pedestrians.  The buildings also frame a new gateway into the east side culture and arts district, strengthening the sense of arrival and lending identity to this stretch of Euclid Avenue.

Uptown gateway looking southwest on Euclid Avenue. 

The principle of building close to the street and considering the pedestrian experience seems to be lost on many Cleveland designers and city officials.  (As evidenced by much of what the Cleveland Clinic has built lately, as well as University Hospital’s recently completed Seidman Cancer Center—two blocks further south on Euclid—that is decidedly non-pedestrian friendly.)

Some of the credit for the positive urban design decisions made at Uptown also goes to CWRU and the Boston firm Chan Krieger, who created the original 2004 project master plan for the university.  These two significant urban design decisions—mixed use and building to sidewalk—are already contributing more to the street life of Cleveland than any other recent construction in the city.

I have been watching the progress of Uptown for some time, and had been planning to write a post about it when both buildings are complete in late fall.  But architecture critic Steven Litt wrote an article about the development in the Plain Dealer last week.  And while many of Litt’s comments are well-observed, he didn’t seem to go deeply enough in his analysis to look at the project with a truly critical eye.1

Two issues raise concern regarding the urban design of Uptown: 

Disposition of buildings at Uptown (Image: The Plain Dealer) 

§   First, the developers have included in the plan a pedestrian-only alley on the south side of the south building, an apparent effort to recreate the magic of their successful development on East 4th Street downtown.  The storefronts in Uptown’s south building will effectively have two faces, one on Euclid Avenue and the other on the pedestrian alley.  

    The concern arises over whether the activity of the shops and sidewalk cafes on the alley side will draw life away from Euclid.  Sometimes in dual-frontage shops, the street side ends up being a glorified service entry, leaving sidewalks there mostly deserted.  MRN is a savvy developer, so hopefully this concern is unfounded.  The verdict on the experiment will have to wait until Uptown is complete in October. 

Narrow sidewalk with inappropriate planting bed.

§   The other concern is that the sidewalks in front of the buildings on Euclid are only seven feet wide.  If the project is as successful as everyone hopes it will be, the sidewalks will be too narrow to handle the expected amount of foot traffic. Inappropriately designed shop entrances and planting beds will exacerbate the problem.  This concern merits its own discussion as a case study in sidewalk and storefront design, so it will be examined in a forthcoming post.


Uptown North Building, looking northeast on Euclid Avenue.

While Uptown gets most of the urbanism right, Saitowitz' chosen mode of architectural expression is more questionable.  His buildings are pleasant enough examples of Modernism.  But they are a generic Modernism.  Their visual language doesn’t have much to do with Cleveland or Northeast Ohio.  These buildings could be anywhere in the country—New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles.  No cues within Uptown’s imagery tell us that we are in Cleveland, Ohio. Generic buildings lead to the homogeneity of our cities, a sense of disorientation, and a loss of the uniqueness that makes each city the special place that it is.

  Modernism makes for dramatic pictures though.

Modernism can be a fine and dynamic language. But Saitowitz’s Modernist interpretation misses the opportunity to draw upon the architectural legacy that exists here.  A richer kind of architecture responds to the specific climate, history, and building practices of a region. It can express this response through its form, materials, construction methods, and details.

Good architecture takes at least some of its cues from the local precedents.  In this way it can “resonate with the landscape and the cultural context” of its setting, as Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa puts it.2 This approach embeds a building more fully within a place.

For example, Saitowitz expresses the rhythm of Uptown's structural bays by leaving their gray concrete columns exposed—a standard, anywhere expression of the Modernist idiom.  Imagine if the designer had chosen instead to sheath the columns with a sleek roman brick and a simple buff sandstone base.  Still tastefully modern, but a respectful acknowledgement of Uptown’s neighbors one block south, at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield. If cost was an issue, or more subtlety desired, the designer could simply have mixed bit of Ohio clay into the concrete for color.  Small, thoughtful gestures could have made the new buildings feel more like they belong in Northeast Ohio 

Mixed-use building at the corner of Euclid and Mayfield.

The appropriateness of the designer’s material selections for Ohio’s harsh climate also causes concern.  One assumes that the aluminum siding material and the projecting sunshades have been engineered to withstand our weather.  But when looking at these materials and their detailing, one wonders about their durability.  How will they look fifty years from now, seventy-five years from now?

Will the siding details and the underlying polypropylene membrane keep out the moisture of fifty rainy springs?  Will the sunshades remain straight and unbent under the burden of heavy snow and icicles that seventy-five winters bring?

The architect demonstrates his Modernist virtuosity by punching crisp window openings through the aluminum siding material on his buildings.  No question the lack of window trim gives the structures a streamlined appearance.  But window trim and sills are not just decorative affectations.  The window casings serve a very real and functional purpose:  They keep water away from the building face, protecting it from deterioration and infiltration at a vulnerable location. 


Some architects rely on technology—a polypropylene membrane, heavy sealants around windows—to keep weather and water out of the building. But more durable design solutions can often be found in local building practices that have been tested over time. 


Shadowlines don't lie.
Finally, the shading devices above the window openings are problematic for another reason:  they will not really be effective at keeping the sun off of the glass.  Saitowitz chose to make all of the sunshades the same depth, regardless of whether the windows are three feet tall and horizontal or eight feet tall and vertical. It is clear that these metal projections will not accomplish the goal of shading the tall windows.  Apparently, the architect was not really serious about reducing heat gain and increasing energy efficiency. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that these eyebrows are mere aesthetic flourishes.

Time will reveal whether the material choices and detailing decisions made by the architect will endure.  And despite Uptown’s shortcomings, MRN, Saitowitz, and their institutional partners earn high praise for setting a good urban design precedent. If the project proves to be economically successful, Cleveland developers may take notice and follow Uptown’s urbanistic lead.  And, hopefully, government leaders will push them to do just that.  If so, Uptown will serve as a positive step forward towards better urbanism for the city and its people.

1 Steven Litt,Modern-style buildings by architect Stanley Saitowitz give University Circle's Uptown development new sense of place,” The Plain Dealer, 8 April  2012:
2 Juhani Pallasmaa, “Place and Image,” from An Architecture of the Ozarks, The Works of Marlon Blackwell, by Marlon Blackwell (New York:  Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), p.30.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


They’ve finally gone and done it.

For weeks now, I’ve been reluctant to drive over to the East side of Cleveland, in the vicinity of  University Circle

I have been dreading the drive east on Chester, then the turn south onto Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  Because at a certain point along MLK, just past the Parkside Dwellings apartment building, I knew that someday soon I would round this bend, and in place of the beautiful and noble Cleveland School of the Arts Building,

I would find

A big
of rubble.

And a space now filled with sky, where a solid edifice of red-orange brick proudly stood for 110 years.  One hundred ten years.

Last night,
that nightmare came true.

Even though I was prepared for the eventual blow, it still, literally, made me feel sick to my stomach to see the building gone.  Forever.  

Contractors had been dismantling the school building for months, doing asbestos abatement, and jackhammering loose some of the ornate glazed terra cotta tile trim pieces around the entranceways for “preservation” and “future re-use.”  Some fools’ cold comfort that is.

I had been hoping against hope.

That someone—a School Board member, a Councilperson, the Mayor—would see the facades of roman brick, still straight and true after over a century of use.  They would see the real jack arches spanning all of the window openings. 

They would see the exquisite buff-colored, glazed terra cotta cornices and that ornate detailing around the entries.  Really see them.  And, somehow, they would realize the gravity of what we were losing.  They would see that we can’t build structures of such quality and craftsmanship anymore.  And they would see the foolishness of allowing the destruction of this handsome building.

I was wrong.  No one came to this building’s rescue.  Not even me. 

It’s kind of silly to say, but I feel a bit like Charlton Heston at the end of the film Planet of the Apes, when he cries out:  

“Oh my God. . . .We finally really did it. You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! . . . damn you all to Hell!”

I feel powerless. 
For they just keep tearing down my beautiful city, brick by brick, and building by building.  Until some day, not far in the future, there will be nothing of worth left. 

Demolition of important historical works of architecture is happening in this City at an alarming rate.  These treasures are disappearing from existence on an almost weekly basis. 

It’s hard to keep up:  The Columbia Building, The Alhambra Apartments. The 1874 Stanley Building—one of the last remaining late nineteenth century structures in downtown Cleveland—has been condemned by the Building Department and is threatened with demolition.  CSU has recently won approval from the Landmarks Commission to tear down Walker & Weeks’ Wolfe Music Building on Euclid Avenue.  Next on the chopping block:  John Marshall High School

And on it goes.

At the School of the Arts, I mused on the idea of somehow chaining myself to the building to prevent its demolition and bring attention to this travesty.  But I told myself I couldn’t figure out the practicalities of it— Would I set up a tent and have my wife resupply me with food and other necessities?  Would I end up going to jail?  How does one go to the bathroom while chained to a building? If anyone even paid attention and asked me why I was doing it, could I speak eloquently enough about the issue?

I guess this wasn’t my moment yet, because I didn’t have the nerve. 

I do feel passionately about the issue of Preservation.  For two reasons:

First, reusing older buildings is more sustainable than building new (even if the replacement buildings are “green” and LEED certified).  Renovation conserves raw materials like wood, brick, steel, glass, and stone.  It also conserves the energy used to build these historic structures in the first place.  And it saves the energy used to extract and fabricate new construction materials.  These strategies reduce the impact of building construction on climate change.  If Cleveland wants to live up to its stated goal of being a sustainable city, then it must stop demolishing historic buildings, and start preserving and reusing them.

Second, older buildings are a legacy from our ancestors.  These buildings are our history.  They are valuable artifacts of our culture.  They speak of the values of the time in which they were constructed: craftsmanship, beauty, civic pride.  They are the sweat and the treasure and the hopes of those that came before us.  We toss them aside as if they no longer have any value.  Would we throw away old family photographs, the family silver, our grandmother’s quilt, because they are seen as out of fashion, or not the latest materials or technology?  Some would.  Those on the Cleveland School Board, some members of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, and many others in this city would.

At a January 12 meeting, the Landmarks Commission was discussing whether to remove the existing Historic Landmark designation from another school building—John Marshall High School—and pave the way for its demise. Commission member and Ward 5 Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland said, 

“I don’t really know a lot about preservation or architecture, but I do like new things.  I am not a preservationist. . . . I vote demolition.”1

We elect public officials to represent our interests and to be good caretakers of our public assets.  These solid, historic school buildings are the collective assets of the community.  We, the people, own them.  The first responsibility of our representatives in every case should be to determine the best and highest use of these pieces of our architectural heritage.  And then, with all the facts at their disposal, they should carefully decide whether to renovate, re-purpose, sell, or as an absolute last resort, demolish.  Our public officials have not been doing this job very well. 

The School of the Arts was in sound condition.  The brick was not spalling.  The cornices were not in disrepair.  In fact, the windows were recently replaced.  And a new roof had been installed ten years ago and was in “excellent” condition, according to the OSFC assessment.  Perhaps the needs of the SOA for performance space, specialized practice rooms, art studios, etc. could not be accommodated within the existing facility.   If renovation was truly not cost effective, as the School Board claims, then City officials should have exhausted all of the following possibilities before arriving at the decision to demolish:
§    Could a new SOA building have been built elsewhere on the campus shared with John Hay High School, while preserving the original SOA building for some other use?  There is a lot of open land on the eleven-acre campus, including expansive parking lots facing Carnegie Avenue.
§      Could an alternate site have been found for a new SOA facility, and the existing building put to some other useful purpose?  Surely, with the amount of disinvestment and foreclosure that has taken place in the city over the past few years, there must be nearby empty land that could have been used as a SOA campus. 
§   Could the SOA building have been saved and sold to another owner?  The building is directly across the street from the Case Western Reserve University campus.  Student housing is in high demand in University Circle.  Could it have been converted to student apartments?    

Is demolition really the best solution that we could come up with? 

The needless demolition of the School of the Arts shows a lack of vision, a lack of creative thinking, and a lack of good stewardship on the part of our elected officials.  Surely, we deserve better. Surely, we as a community can do better.   

Our ancestors built these magnificent structures.  We were given the responsibility of caring for these buildings.  We are foolhardy to demolish this legacy.  Our children will question our recklessness and wonder at what we were thinking.

Are we doomed as a society, as a city, because of the demolition of a single historic school building?
Perhaps not.  

But last night, as I rounded that bend on MLK Drive,
I wasn’t so sure.

1Ken Prendergast, "Cleveland Landmarks Commission Clears Way for John Marshall High School Demolition," Sun News, 19 January 2012: