Last month, the Over-the-Rhine Foundation hosted a design competition to “test” their proposed update to the New Construction Guidelines for the Over-the-Rhine Historic District. There are 9 requirements regulating massing/height/scale, setback, composition, vertical emphasis, rhythm, openings, roof, materials and miscellaneous items. The OTR Foundation’s Infill Committee, established in 2013 to address the challenges of infill design in this historic neighborhood, worked in partnership with the Historic Conservation Office to modernize the guidelines which were ten years old at the time. Presumably the existing guidelines were not adequate to control the significant influx of new development in the neighborhood, some of which was met with stiff opposition, some of which was deserved. The stated goal of the update was to provide clear and comprehensive guideline language paired with illustrative graphics to assist in designing new construction that would enhance the long-term coherence of Over-the-Rhine and its desirability to both residents and visitors.
Klingt gut, oder?
(Sounds good, right?)
The problem we found is that the guidelines went too far in restricting new design to maintain the existing aesthetics of the district. We think there's a way (an obligation even!) to express our unique point in architectural and cultural time. We think there’s a way to provide contextual guidance that doesn't restrict an appropriate contemporary response. Do the guidelines ensure cookie cutter design or encourage contemporary response to the existing rich context? We believe the guidelines essentially guarantee a false and bland uniformity by describing the restrictions in such detail that all designs will be essentially the same. There's a reason buildings looked the way they did in the 19th century. Aren't there different opportunities in the 21st? Our cities are living organisms, not period backdrops. New construction should proudly claim our point in history.
The term “must” is used frequently throughout the requirements. For example, storefronts must be clear glass with a transom and bulkhead and a sill that projects 2”-4” from the glazing. It can be recessed, but only 10% of the average on the block. Entry doors must be between 34” and 38” wide and 82” and 112” high. They must be located on the ends of the storefront and be spaced at 20’ on center minimum. Vertical divisions of the façade are regulated by width of building – a 16’ wide building must express two 8’ wide divisions, a 40’ building must have six 6.67’ wide divisions. Exterior materials must be brick in running bond on all sides, with masonry joints between 3/8” and ½”. The brick must match the color of brick on adjacent buildings and have stone sills and lintels at openings.
The guidelines do allow for exceptions to be made. However, the matrix in which exceptions can be approved does not actually describe what is acceptable, but merely requires more information. For example, to get an exception to any of the nine requirements, you must create a narrative statement of design intent and how it preserves the integrity of the district, create a storyboard documenting the design process, provide color photographs of the context with the proposed building superimposed in them and provide a 3d model of the entire block with the proposed building. The magnitude of the work (particularly for small infill projects) required of the “exceptions” encourages blind and thoughtless compliance instead of vibrancy and diversity. Aside from not recognizing how cities grow and change over time, the guidelines are poorly conceived - a Disneyland version of city planning. From the experiences of other architects that have proposed more contemporary design in OTR, the staff and board have not been particularly receptive to alternative design narratives. The guidelines don’t provide any quantifiable relief for this. Why not create guidelines that describe something cool? Why not describe an appropriate contemporary option? The guidelines do not allow for a natural growth of a city/community that provides texture and aesthetic vibrancy. This prescribed uniformity is unacceptable and irresponsible.
So……we wrote a manifesto for our competition entry:
A Manifesto Against Guidance.
To address guidelines that prescribe an unnatural city.
And because we think we (all) can do better.
A Manifesto Against Guidance
We are not robots
We do not march in lockstep
Our cities are not made on an assembly line
We are born
Our city is not a place in time
Our city is not a moment in time
Our city is not static
Our city has no beginning
Our city is vibrant
Our city is made of layers of time and place and people
manifest in transparency and collage
Here is your mass and scale
Here is your setback
Here is your composition
base, middle, top
Here is your verticality
Here is your rhythm
Here is your opening
Here is your roof
Here is your material
Here is the miscellaneous item that you can’t describe elsewhere
Here is your city
This is our city
We didn’t win the competition.
We’re pretty sure it wasn’t even close. It might have been because we wrote the manifesto in German. Although our entry might have been helped the fact that our “fist in the air” was untranslated (we provided a translation, we don’t think the judges saw it). Ultimately, we ignored the guidelines and developed an architecture we felt appropriate. So, we can’t blame them?
It’s great that the design community has had the opportunity to think about this publicly, and for this we thank the OTR Foundation and Infill Committee for their efforts in putting this together. Also, great – the Cincinnati AIA Chapter is hosting a “salon” – fancy talk for a get together – to further discuss the outcomes of the competition. Hopefully, lots of interested folks will show up. Hopefully no one will beat us up or key our car.
P.S. The thing on the top is a platform to observe the city. Not a sign. We understand that there was some confusion.