Preservation exists to sustain the life of buildings that represent significant moments in our history; buildings that we want to share with future generations, not just through pictures and texts, but through a tangible, immersive experience. The notion of preservation has certain associations with history, so much so that the very term of “historic preservation” is a specialty in the field of architecture. But when we consider the term historic, it connotes a certain intrinsic value to both the building and the period in which it was built. Often the criteria for determining the significance of buildings are weighed against the interval of time from when they were built. In other words, the older the building, the potentially more significant it could be. Much of this work focuses on restoring buildings that have fallen into disrepair over the course of time, and through the natural weathering or artificial destruction of the building. This inclination towards buildings in the historic space often overshadows the significance of buildings in the contemporary space. Historic and contemporary buildings alike are evaluated for preservation based on two factors, their memory and their integrity.
The memory of a building resides in the people related to that building, past and present. A building will often be considered for preservation based on its memory if it is associated with a person of note, perhaps a great architect or philanthropist. These people have often had an impact on the built environment over the course of their lives, and in so doing, have left an indelible mark on the narrative of that period and culture.
The integrity of a building is located in the tangible remnants of a building itself. The integrity of a building considers all of the systems of the building, their origin, condition and operational value. This factor signifies what the building produced towards the advancement of architecture and the built environment, and includes not only the physical manifestation but also the theoretical concept of the building.
All architecture represents to some extent the period in which it was built, although there are certain cities and places around the world that have a critical mass of significant architecture. Through their buildings, these places represent specific periods in the evolution of a culture. Some places undergo such a remarkable transformation, in such a short period of time that their density exists in both place and time. One such place is the campus of the University of Cincinnati. In the 1980’s, the dean of UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP), Jay Chatterjee, had a vision of a campus that embraced contemporary architecture. The University, signing on to this vision, began a program to attract the most talented architects of the time to propagate their work across the campus fabric. Works by renowned architects such as Michael Graves, Henry Cobb, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Charles Gwathmey, Buzz Yudell and Berhard Tschumi began taking shape across the university grounds, giving the campus a distinctively eclectic and contemporary character. At the forefront of UC’s “signature architect” program was a new building for the College of DAAP, designed by the provocative architect, Peter Eisenman.
Mr. Eisenman began working on the design for what would become known as the Aronoff Center for Design and Art back in 1988. It took nearly eight years to complete and represented a significant shift in the way the University culture thought about its architecture. No longer were buildings mere facilities for purposes of education; they now became elements for a dynamic dialogue on the changing environment of education.
The new Aronoff Center defied convention in its conceptualization of how a building should function and be formed. The strengths of these concepts defined the narrative for the building and presented unique challenges to the builders as they tried to understand and be true to the formal complexities of Mr. Eisenman’s “deconstructivist” design approach. The original material selected for the envelope of the building was a ceramic panel, but the increasing construction costs of this unconventional project led the University to revise this selection. The value-engineering decision to go with a less expensive exterior insulation and finish system (EIFS) would prove to be a costly choice. Shortly after the building was completed in 1996, the exterior envelope system began to show signs of weathering and deterioration beyond its years. The university took care to preserve the envelope condition as long as possible, but by 2007 it was clear that more drastic measures would need to be taken if the university wanted to preserve this iconic element of their signature architecture program.
Although the exterior integrity of the Aronoff Center was deteriorating, its memory was strong and relevant, particularly as a marker for the period in which the building was conceived. The people involved with the original design process were still active at the university, and the design architect was still relevant in the professional and academic communities. These considerations presented a unique question: how do you preserve a contemporary building? Before this question could be answered, the extent of the deterioration had to be determined. In 2009, the university hired local architecture and engineering firm KZF Design to oversee the entire process of preserving the Aronoff Center. KZF Design contracted the forensic team at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE) to determine the source and extent of the damage to the envelope of the building. Their forensic investigation became the foundation for determining the scope of the preservation effort. Upon review of the report with the university, it was clear that the entire EIFS system needed to be removed, and a more durable envelope system installed to preserve the integrity of the building for its intended lifespan.
“Image” vs. “Idea”
While ceramic panels were originally conceived as the exterior material, the design team explored a more customizable system of metal panels. These panels would allow the team to preserve the modular grid that was an integral part of the concept, and explore different finishes as a means to express the codification of Eisenman’s organizational systems. The pedestrian “image” of the Aronoff Center was that of fragmented pink, green and blue panels. The architectural “idea” of the building was that color was a mere coded representation of the organizational system, where each color belonged to a unique system. By deconstructing the meaning of the color, and allowing an interpretation of the code, the team could recall and preserve the deconstructivist “idea” of the building. Thus began the debate of whether to preserve the “image” or the “idea” of the building. This question was uniquely contemporary – the materials of historic buildings function as themselves, without representation or codification of something else.
Preserving the “image” of the building involved capturing the specific application of the form, grid and colors as they were installed in the original design. This was achieved through a photographic survey and the electronic scanning of every facet of the exterior façade, creating a series of digital drawings that documented every nuanced surface of the complex building envelope. Three-dimensional models were developed at both a building scale and a detail scale. These models were developed to assist in the conversation on panel systems that might be used to preserve the integrity of the building and prevent a reoccurrence of the original problem conditions. A painted aluminum rain-screen system was proposed to preserve the “image” of the building. The panels could be custom colored with a durable Kynar finish to ensure the integrity of the color would last as long as the panels themselves. The result would be a high-definition version of the muted EIFS colors in original design, replete with new window flashings and copings that would maintain the integrity of the new façade system from top to bottom.
Once the context of the original design was captured, the dialogue about preserving the “idea” of the building could engage and perform at a comparable level, presenting a design alternative that challenged the very notions of preservation and the building’s concept. Through interpretation, we could demonstrate the fundamental “idea” of deconstructivism that examines the internal logic and meaning of the system. For this solution, a textured stainless steel rain-screen system was proposed to preserve the “idea” of the building. By interpreting the code of the original concept into material textures instead of colors, this solution offered an evolved understanding of the organizational code embedded in the building’s design.
With strong design solutions in place, including details to solve the integrity problems of the building envelope, and visualization to support the design solutions, it was time to decide whether to preserve the “image” or the “idea.” For this decision, the university sought the opinions of those people who held the memory for the project, Mr. Chatterjee and Mr. Eisenman. Through a dialogue with them about the memory of the building, it was determined that the strength of the building existed in the period in which it was conceived and built, and that to interpret further the code and materials of the building would remove it from that period. Ultimately, the strength of the building for the period and culture it represented was determined to be expressed in the color…the “image” of the building.
With a clear directive and vision for what it meant to preserve the Aronoff Center, KZF Design began executing the envelope replacement. Working closely with Overly Manufacturing Company for the fabrication of the new aluminum rain-screen panels, the design team developed full scope drawings, details for concealed hangers and fasteners, phasing strategies for façade replacement, and panel installation sequencing. Although the design team had meticulously documented the existing conditions of the Aronoff Center’s form, grid and colors, a precision three-dimensional digital form had to be created as the substrate for the new panel system design. To get to an accurate substrate, the construction team of Turner Construction had to first remove the existing EIFS, often replacing the exterior sheathing, and in some cases, reframing the walls due to framing deterioration. Once the sheathing was replaced, detailed window flashing conditions were installed, and the entire building was waterproofed with a breathable spray-on membrane coating. The surveying team from Berding Surveying provided a three-dimensional scan of the building and created a digital substrate from their point cloud that could be used by Overly in the design and production of their panel system.
The nature and complexity of the project demanded that the design and production of the panels be broken down into 10 phases. Each panel was meticulously built in the digital environment, and then rigorously checked against the photographs and design drawings produced by KZF Design. Overly issued both two-dimensional shop drawings and three-dimensional panel models for review by the design team to ensure quality control and compliance with the original design intent. No two conditions on the building were alike, so each panel and detail had to be reviewed closely, and the form, grids and colors associated with them had to be traced back to the broader coded organizational system. Once the panels and joints were confirmed, each of the 4,675 panels and over 41,000 support tracks were assigned numbers to track them through the CNC manufacturing process, and ensure that they would be installed on the building where they belonged.
The notion of “contemporary preservation” isn’t unique to the Aronoff Center. There are cities and places around the world that have distinctive contemporary buildings, and often a critical mass of Architecture that exists in the contemporary space. Many of these buildings may have been subjected to the same value-engineering decisions that compromised the envelope of the Aronoff Center, and must be evaluated for preservation based on factors of memory and integrity. To perform such an evaluation, the design team must be versatile enough to work with the client to understand the significance of the building’s memory, yet creative enough to propose solutions that can enhance the building’s integrity.
KZF Design understands the importance of contemporary architecture. We know that although these buildings may not yet be considered “historic,” they will be looked upon by future generations as emblematic of the period and culture in which they were built. Preservation exists to sustain the life of buildings that represent significant moments in our history. Through contemporary preservation, we can share these buildings with future generations, not just through pictures and texts, but through a tangible, immersive experience.