Monday, June 7, 2010

The Ohio Historical Center: A Defense

A couple weeks ago I was contacted by Carrie Ghose at Business First to share my thoughts on architecture in central Ohio. The recent controversy surrounding the new Student Union at Ohio State had apparently sparked a number of conversations regarding what constitutes "good" building design.

Carrie was following that story, and developing a second piece to get feedback on other notable Columbus buildings. At the time I offered a staunch a defense of what I believe might be the most maligned and misunderstood building in central Ohio, the Ohio Historical Center. Business First wasn't able to run the whole piece, so I've decided to turn it into a blog post.

photo courtesy of OHS/

The refrain is a as old as the building itself, "It's ugly. It's just a giant brown box. It doesn't even look like a museum". Sadly, it's that exact line of thinking that poses the greatest threat to the building Architectural Record referred to as, “the most architecturally significant public structure built in Ohio since the State Capitol Building.” While many view it as something of a modernist cliche, The Ohio Historical Center's simplicity and raw presence belie what is in fact a unique and nuanced structure.

When it first opened in 1970 the Center was lauded by the American Institute of Architects as bold and imaginative. To this day, architecture aficionados recognize the building as one of the premier examples of Brutalism in the United States. Brutalism, as evidenced by the Center, favored the honesty of exposed concrete and modernist block forms over more decorative, bourgeois flourishes.

photo courtesy of OHS/

Even within the parameters of the Brutalist aesthetic, the building manages to convey a sense of Ohio's unique history. Designed by the Columbus firm W. Byron Ireland & Associates, the Center pays homage to our State's past through a number of clever expressions. The most striking is its shape, inspired by the tiered form of a typical Ohio frontier block house. The Center's rich, brown exterior is comprised of Ohio silo tile, while the structure itself sits on a gently sloping mound, a nod to the ancient earthworks built by the first Ohioans. On top of of all that, it's got cantilevers that would make Frank Lloyd Wright green with envy.

The word ugly gets tossed around a lot. It's been used to describe many of art's most iconic achievements (The Eiffel Tower, Jackson Pollock paintings, and punk rock come to mind). I expect there's a lesson in there. When you hear the word ugly, look a little closer and dig a little deeper. What you might find is something innovative, challenging, unexpected and unique.


  1. Excellent! I'm no architecture expert, but I do like modernism, and I've always found the Ohio Historical Center interesting. It's nice to hear good reasoning for that from someone who knows what he talking about.

  2. Thanks Jen. I'm no architecture expert either. My wife works at the Center though and was kind enough to school me on the building's design. If I know anything, it's thanks to her!

  3. Nice post! Have to admit I haven't been a big fan of the structure itself, but your post here is making me take a closer look.

  4. I see the link to the block house, but it is a tenuous connection to Ohio's past. Proportionally it has way too small a base to claim a design link to block houses. That same issue affects its overall balance. Modernists love to defy gravity, but when you have that small a base with such a massive upper deck the end result is to create the impression of a building about to come crashing down. While it won't collapse it doesn't give one a sense of comfort.

    It is not that the building's critics are bourgeois or ignorant, it is that they are going with their gut, and their gut tells them this is all wrong. Good design takes into account our natural instincts and how we process images. If you have to educate people on why it is a great design you probably did something wrong.

    I don't dislike all modernism, and I even see some value in this building, but I get tired of getting lectured to by designers and their fans who assume it is my lack of training the keeps me from recognizing their brilliance.

    I write on architecture at .