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“One of the most eagerly awaited architectural events of the last decade.”
—architecture critic Paul Goldberger, writing on the occasion of the Wexner Center’s opening in 1989
“The visually explosive building designed by Peter Eisenman helped usher in a new generation of cultural facilities conceived not as neutral containers but as expressive works of art themselves.”
The Wexner Center for the Arts complex was designed by architects Peter Eisenman of New York in association with Richard Trott of Columbus, along with landscape architect Laurie Olin from Philadelphia. The design for the center emerged from a 1982–‘83 competition held by The Ohio State University calling for a bold building to house its ambitious new multidisciplinary contemporary arts center.
Eisenman’s design for the Wexner Center deliberately draws on history while invoking the future. The prominent brick arch on the building’s southern façade and the tower-like structures that cluster around the entrances to the building are fragments meant to reference and recollect the Armory, a campus landmark formerly located on this site, which was torn down in 1959 after a fire. The distinctive white scaffold-like spine that runs along the entire east façade of the building points toward the future, evoking the impression of something continually evolving—like contemporary art itself.
The design of the Wexner Center building reflected the then aspiring institution’s mandate—to wholly reimagine what a contemporary cultural space could and should be, without regard to preconceived assumptions. Recognizing the potential of architecture to signal the center’s vanguard mission to the public, as well as to shape and support the activities within, the university appointed a nine-person jury in 1982 to select an designer of international renown working in partnership with an Ohio-based architect. The jury was chaired by distinguished architect Henry Cobb, then chair of the Architecture Department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and included representatives from the local and national arts and architecture communities, in addition to university faculty and campus planning experts.
The jury selected five design teams to participate in an invitational competition, in which they would work from a detailed architectural program formulated by an advisory committee of Ohio State faculty, staff, students, and alumni. The specific site was not delineated, though the teams were asked to situate their proposed building somewhere between the east edge of Ohio State’s beloved Oval and the High Street entrance to campus.
The Eisenman team’s design readily stood apart from the field of submissions for its refusal to yield to conventional thinking. Rather than take the obvious approach of establishing the building as a counterbalance to the mass and form of the Thompson Library (at the opposite end of the Oval), Eisenman designed an angular, highly distinctive wedge-like complex nestled between the existing structures of Weigel Hall and Mershon Auditorium, with a plaza extending out to where High Street meets 15th Avenue.
His overall design scheme for the center is rife with nods to history and place; the geometries underlying the center’s design and orientation were calculated to deliberately underscore the 12 ¼ degree divergence between the city and campus planning grids—the intersection of “town and gown” made literal. As Eisenman noted at the time, it’s “a building that is waiting to be a building,” a notion made manifest in the now iconic exterior grid or “scaffolding” that runs the length of the building and is one of the most-photographed spots in town. The brick walls and castle-like turrets harken back to the Ohio State Armory, a beloved facility on the site that burned and was demolished in 1959. And where the sliced-off brick towers collide with the gridwork, Eisenman observes “the old is eroded, unveiled, cut away by the present and future.”
Meanwhile, the interior spaces of the building (which include galleries, performance spaces, and a film theater, as well as a café and store) were designed to accommodate every conceivable contemporary art form, and even those yet to be imagined. As the jury noted in its selection of the design, the building “captured the spirit, dynamism, and open-endedness of the new center’s programmatic needs.”
Eisenman’s penchant for literally and symbolically excavating and the sites of his projects was honed to an exquisite degree at the Wex. He was everywhere conscious of imbuing the center with “intersectionality,” creating a focal point and nexus where different arts disciplines and communities converge and thrive. A place where the campus population and community audiences together encounter and experience artists working in all fields. A place where the past is respected even as the future is in the making. And a place where local meets global, as symbolized in two distinctive vectors—one aligning to the main runway at Columbus’s John Glenn International Airport and the other to the storied and revered Ohio Stadium.
The Wexner Center was the first major public commission for Eisenman, who prior to that time was primarily known as an architectural theorist and academic. He has since gone on to complete major works such as Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin; City of Culture of Galicia in Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Ohio is unique in that is has three Eisenman buildings, the Greater Columbus Convention Center and the University of Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center for Design and Art, in addition to the Wexner Center for the Arts.
Not surprisingly, the Wex garnered coverage in publications ranging from the New York Times to Travel & Leisure, from Vogue to the Christian Science Monitor, from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News. Entire issues of architecture magazines—including Progressive Architecture, Architecture and Urbanism, and Architectural Design—were devoted to this new marvel on the cultural landscape. The American Institute of Architects noted that the building “challenges assumptions of what architecture should be.” The New York Times called it a “major cultural happening,” and Newsweek wrote that the building "in its oddball way is a triumph—crazy, inventive, and full of life.”
In the almost 30 years since its debut, the Wexner Center building has been a catalyst for critical attention and discourse on the role of architecture in crafting cultural experience. And there’s no question that this now iconic structure has had a dramatic impact on the perception of Columbus—locally, nationally, and internationally. It also marked a moment of transition from more typically “classical” or “high modern” design to a period of highly experimental architecture in the service of museums, art centers, and cultural facilities worldwide. In subsequent years, architects such as Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, David Adjaye, Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, Kazuyo Sejima, Daniel Libeskind, and others would be commissioned to design museum buildings that likewise pushed conventional boundaries and assumed the status of art objects in their own right.