EISENMAN'S CHIP-BOARD FANTASY:

THE GREATER COLUMBUS CONVENTION CENTER, Columbus, Ohio

Elwin C. Robison
Kent State University


Architects:  Eisenman Architects, New York, and Richard Trott & Partners, Columbus.
Consultants: Lorenz & Williams, Dayton, Ohio 
             (structural, mechanical, and electrical engineering); 
             Moody/Nolan, Columbus (civil engineering); 
             Phillips Graveline Facility Development, Atlanta 
             (convention center consultant); 
             Oregon Group Architects, Dayton (codes); 
             Simpson, Gumperts & Herger, Arlington, Massachusetts (roofing); 
             Mayer/Reed, Portland, Oregon (graphic design); 
             Jules Fisher & Paul Marantz, New York (lighting); 
             Jaffe Acoustics, Norwalk, Connecticut (acoustics); 
             Image Engineering, Somerville, Massachusetts (electronics).
             Construction manager: Turner/Smoot/Zunt, Columbus.

Competition date: 1989 
Completion date:  1993

Peter Eisenman's architecture has sparked comment in design circles for the past few decades. However, until recent years his commissions were for relatively small residences that subordinated livability over concept to such an extent that they almost seemed like pieces of performance art instead of architecture -- an impression that is only reinforced by the misfortune of the occupant of his House VI, who broke a leg after falling into the slot in the floor designed by Eisenman.Ref.1 However, two commissions changed the pattern of polemic residences that characterized Eisenman's career. The first was the Berlin Bauaustellung apartment block which he constructed in 1988, and the second was the the Wexner Center completed in 1989 on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus. With these two projects the scale of his undertakings increased, along with the visibility of his practice.

Clearly, the notoriety of the Wexner Center was a major factor in Eisenman's obtaining the commission for the Columbus Convention Center. One of the more talked-about buildings of the 1980's, the Wexner Center put Ohio State University on the cultural "map." Significantly, a convention center requires a high level of recognition in order to attract exhibits and shows, a factor that is doubly important for a city like Columbus which has been virtually bypassed by the airline networks (Cincinnati and Cleveland are the closest airline hubs). Commissioning Eisenman to design the convention center was a natural decision on the part of the Convention Center's sponsors, who hoped to borrow from the name recognition achieved by the Wexner Center and turn it to advantage in attracting trade shows.

However, all that glitters is not gold, and in this case the convention center commission is precisely the type that Eisenman was ill-prepared to fulfill because of its large scale. By way of comparison, the successful Wexner Center is a relatively modest building in terms of scale; none of the interior galleries are much more than double the size of a large living room in a residence costing seven figures. In addition, Mr. Wexner's 25 million dollar beneficence gave Eisenman plenty of operating room for the budget. One of the delights of walking through the building is watching the collision of beautiful floor textures: flame cut granite, hardwood, and polished marble. Indeed the Wexner Center seems like a laboratory designed to test Claude Perrault's two-part theory of beauty: one being the inherent beauty of the materials themselves, and the other "fantaisie."

On the other hand, the Columbus Convention Center required floating debt (mostly backed by taxpayers, of course) which severely limited the possibilities in terms of materials and finishes. What resulted was a series of interesting geometries with little architectural development scaled to the user. Like most buildings of its type, the Columbus Convention Center is a large building covering just under 600,000 square feet. In an attempt to tame the large volume, Eisenman created a series of separate pavilions on the High Street facade, predictably canted at odd angles.(Figure 1) (Figure 2)These pavilions were intended to echo the rhythm of the brick facades on the opposite side of the street (which by the way are certain to be slated for demolition since the building of the convention center has increased land values requiring a more intensive development of the land). However, the muted color palette used on these pavilions undercuts the boldness of their canted forms -- brown, beige, salmon, turquoise, and sea-green colors seem to melt away when compared to the deep red brick of the mostly 19th century buildings across the street. The metallic colors originally proposed for the pavilions would have lent greater definition, but no amount of color can erase the fact that the pavilions are totally blank. There is no activity here; there are no store fronts or shop windows to animate the mass -- only cavities holding dirty snow and wind-blown papers, and entrances which no one uses because they do not lead to anywhere (anywhere being defined as either the parking lot or the Hyatt Regency hotel which is the only lodging serving the convention center -- perhaps future development will change this situation).

These pavilions initiate long, curving volumes which extend back to the truck loading docks along the rear. Along the street facade these volumes coincide with meeting rooms, the grand ballroom, and eating facilities. In the main exhibition space, however, they simply run above the supporting trusses without regard to the structural or spatial grid below. Although not structurally "honest," these volumes do create a great deal of visual interest for the large structure, especially for the aerial views published in magazines and no doubt for the presentation model made for the clients. The most successful portions of the convention center take advantage of these volumes. For example the facade facing the parking lot is cladded with corrugated steel sheets mounted horizontally.(Figure 3) Each separate plane is painted a different color (light blue, light green, beige) with the horizontal corrugations emphasizing the length of the exhibition hall. Paradoxically, this most successful facade is a temporary one, as future expansion will push into the parking area and obliterate this elevation.

The general plan of the convention center is quite simple and functional. A major circulation spine runs from the parking lot through the complex to a pedestrian bridge which crosses a series of railroad tracks leading to the Hyatt Regency and shopping areas beyond. Most of the meeting rooms and offices are located on the High Street side of the spine, while the opposite side is dominated by the gargantuan exhibit area. This spine extends up to the roof level, with skylights bringing natural light directly into the interior corridor.(Figure 4) Balconies overlooking the space from the meeting room side create a series of intersecting viewpoints. (Video 1) These are further enhanced by the level change in the circulation spine; from the connecting bridge over the railroad tracks where one descends a bank of escalators which slowly reveals the complex spatial nature of this central spine. This space is very successful, with the only caveat being that the bold planes are rendered in pastel colors which tend to reduce the impact of the volumes. Eisenman had the opportunity to impart a Piranesian quality to the space, but he deliberately negates this through color choice, similar to the way he undercut the visual interest of the inclined pavilions on the street facade. Pale yellows, salmons, and grays dominate the interiors, giving a non-corporeal quality to what would otherwise be a very architectonic space. One suspects that the color choice was made to enhance the confusing quality of the space, but despite the jogs and shifts in the circulation spine, its clear overall axis does not allow for much confusion -- instead the colors give an odd blandness to the space.


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     One of the overriding impressions for an architectural educator when walking through
the central spine is that of experiencing a fourth-year student's chipboard model -- 
the major volumes have been arranged into an interesting parti, but the interiors are
largely undeveloped. Ref.2  Walking down the southernmost corridor leading to meeting halls is
a particularly sterile experience.  While the gentle curved shape creates interest
for small plane pilots flying overhead, the building occupant is faced with unrelieved wall
surfaces and a dead end corridor terminating in banks of exit doors with crash
hardware.  The "undesigned" character of this space echoes John Burgee's criticism of the
High Street facade as "not developed" in the competition entry.  One suspects that the
specially-designed carpet with its colliding geometries was intended to provide the small-
scale visual interest that the architecture does not.  However, as with most substitutions,
it does not make up for lack of architectural development.  Of course Eisenman's
architecture has been one of polemics, not of aesthetics, and he would argue, I'm sure, 
that that is just the point. However, the bland and undeveloped interiors also demonstrate
that creating great architecture requires design maturity bred of experience, in addition
to interesting ideas.  Some things can only be learned by building, experiencing, and
receiving feedback from occupants.  Eisenman's career has skipped this step, and it shows.

Other spaces that could have been far more interesting are the corridors leading from High Street which feature the inclined columns and joggled beams. While the beam spans and column spacings are much too small to create anything approaching the sublime (it would have been possible to build these elements as hollow sheet rock enclosures and support the entire assembly through cantilevers), Eisenman hid views down through the joggled beams by spacing them too closely together. (Video 2) The geometric activity of the canted structure creates interest, but when one climbs the stairs hoping to look through the dizzying structure down to the lower level, one finds the views totally cut off by the deep beams. This should be the view plastered on the cover of promotional literature, but instead it is a blank disappointment. It is only when moving on the escalator that one comprehends the complexity of the space. (Video 3) Likewise, the elevated corridor which overlooks the main space from the connecting bridge to the hotel complex has been given a thickened parapet wall which makes it impossible to look down to the spine. Instead of focusing attention on the view descending the escalator, it merely serves as an irritation to the occupant. (Video 4)


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     One of the building's more curious spaces is the Grand Ballroom -- a name which is rather
incongruous given the reality of the room.  The windowless volume is treated like a funhouse, with
ceiling and wall grids colliding at odd angles.(Figure 5)  Only the tracks for the wall
partitions give a clue as to true horizontal.  What distinguishes this space from a fun
house is color.  The entire space consists of grays and salmons which, in concert with the
colliding geometries, truly induce the vomit reflex which Eisenman proudly brags about in
his public lectures.  That Eisenman was able to achieve this in the Grand Ballroom tells
us as much about the clients as it does about Eisenman.

The main exhibition hall itself is rather successful. Dark gray trusses loom above bright halogen industrial fixtures. The curving volumes that cut across the roof are vaguely visible behind the lights, breaking up the regularity of the main trusses and creating an almost Baroque extension of space. The canted pastel wall surfaces on the enclosing walls barely impact the space, as the large rolled sections of steel in the trusses above steal the show. Here in the functioning "guts" of the building, the exhibition space, Eisenman's pastel colors and tilting planes of sheet rock are irrelevant. Similarly, the rear facade with its rows of truck loading docks has far more visual interest than the ersatz pavilions on the High Street facade. (Figure 6)

The clients for the Columbus Convention Center seem to have gotten what they paid for when they commissioned Eisenman -- notoriety. If one agrees that even bad publicity is good, then the lawsuit by the steel fabricator against the architect of record (claiming inadequate drawings to properly detail the complex building form) was an added bonus. Amazingly, they also got a reasonably well-functioning building as well. (Perhaps this is due to the involvement of the hapless architect of record, Trott and Associates.) Of course the Grand Ballroom is perfectly awful, and some of the side corridors are not much better. But it's amazing how good a space can look when it is crammed full of people and activity.

In the long run, it will be interesting to see what happens when the notoriety wears off. The large areas of sheet rock require constant repainting by a special crew to cover divots in the wallRef.3, and already there is significant cracking of the wall finish around expansion joints.(Figure 7) I would like to be the first to (modestly) propose an interior paint scheme based on British warship camouflage, designed to eradicate the outline of the ship and confuse enemy submarine captains. No one would notice the cracks, and wall divots would disappear amid the riot of color and pattern. Secondly, I would like to propose covering the High Street pavilions with the corrugated steel siding used on the other three elevations. This would markedly improve what is now a grotesque and trivial facade -- in essence a kind of industrial-strength re-siding. This would make the curving shapes which cut through the volume comprehensable to pedestrians on High Street.

Despite all of its flaws, a stroll down the central circulation spine of the Columbus Convention Center is a fun experience. Like Babe Ruth, whose many strikeouts were forgiven for his home runs, the many flaws of the CCC will likely be forgiven for the singular success of the main circulation spine. I am personally waiting for Eisenman's next large scale commission to be built -- it will be interesting to see what effect this building experience will have on his future design work.


References

Ref.1: John Taylor, New York Magazine 21:46-52 (Oct 17, 1988), pg. 51. Note also Cathleen McGulgan, Newsweek 114:74-75 (Nov 20, 1988), who called Eisenman "a prickly theorist who's never built anything larger than a house."

Ref.2: Herbert Muschamp, "Peter Eisenman: Theory and reality collide," Vogue 179:272 (October 89). "So what if Eisenman's ideas are secondhand, imperfectly digested, and of dubious value to begin with?"

Ref.3: The large, unarticulated expanses require constant repainting to cover scuff marks. See Mark Alden Branch, "Queasy in Columbus?" Progressive Architecture (Feb 1994), pg. 80.


Copyright 1994 Elwin C. Robison

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