Method Actor: The Roe Green Center for Theater and Dance

Photo by Tom Kessler

Plain Dealer architecture critic Steven Litt recently wrote a rather positive review of the Roe Green Center for Theater and Dance on the main campus of Kent State University, and my own opinions about the building renovation are so strong I feel the need to weigh in.

For some reason, I can’t look at Holzman Moss Botino (HMB)’s addition without thinking of Dennis Hopper. But more on that in a moment. First, it’s necessary to take notice that Brutalism is back on campus. The style that dominated American collegiate architecture from the ‘60s to the ‘80s has returned to Kent State, heroic as ever,  in the form of a black box theatre, part of a transformation of the existing Music and Speech Building into the new Roe Green Center (RGC). Articulated with striped and textured block reminiscent of Marcel Breuer’s 1972 Education Wing for the Cleveland Museum of Art, it takes the form of an inverse ziggurat, stepping outward as it rises. Like Breuer’s addition, the RGC’s black box introduces a new material language, but here that language gels with the blonde brick of the original building. The trouble is, this brutal block blends better with the original building than it does with the rest of the RGC. I attribute this disharmony to the absurd number of form and material changes the architects used. The building reminds me of clunky acting, a series of outsize gestures independent of one another, not integrated into a cohesive character, and that’s where Dennis Hopper comes in.

Like Brutalism, the Method acting for which Hopper is known is a macho, muscular and heroic style, searching for the emotional and psychological truth of characters in between the lines of a script. When used effectively, “The Method” yields deeply affecting, subtle performances like those of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, but “The Method” also produced Hopper’s twitchy, psychotic photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. A flurry of movements and juxtaposed tones of voice, Hopper’s performance fills the entire space he’s given and demands attention whenever he’s onscreen. It’s that type of prodigiousness that I see in the Roe Green Center. The addition speaks in many tones, and fills its allotted space robustly. But unlike Hopper’s genius portrayal of paranoia and psychosis, the result is a cacophonous composition of stepped profiles in competition with their surroundings. HMB seem to have had difficulty deciding which of their voices should occupy the foreground, and therefore no discrete character emerges.

If there is a tell-tale detail here, it’s the glass detail abutting the black box theatre. The glass datum simply stops, and the theatre form continues uninterrupted. Each of the discrete pieces (block theatre, metal roof, glass wall, column) remains independent of one another. The construction of this glass wall encapsulates the slapdash use of materials, colors and textures that has permeated almost all recent construction at Kent State. Starting from the bottom, the profiled block clashes egregiously with the block types used for the black box, both in color and texture. Why this particular profile and color were selected makes little sense other than to differentiate the form of the lobby from that of the black box and existing building. Further distinguishing this lobby space is its back wall, painted the putrid yellow color that has propagated like a virus on the Kent State campus in recent years. The University Architect, it seems, would like every interior to feel like an overripe banana.

Photo by Tom Kessler

The contrast between the built iteration of this entry space and early renderings tells me a particularly harsh value engineering phase was required of HMB, leaving a patchwork where there once was a clear concept. While it may make practical sense in the snow belt to include a solid base for curtain walls, certainly a more elegant solution could have been found.

Light-filled and pleasant as they are, the insertion of dance studios offered an opportunity for HMB to open up the sterile, institutional hallways of the original building, but instead the connection is timid and unarticulated, easily overlooked. From forms so outspoken on the outside, one would expect a more significant presence on the interior. On the exterior, these studios introduce yet more formal and material contrast, this time a running brick pattern and a haphazard pattern of horizontal windows.

Photo by Tom Kessler

To HMB’s credit, RGC must have been an incredibly difficult commission. Its intent was to modernize (or perhaps post-modernize) the look of an large, confusing building with a small number of redeeming characteristics. HMB chose to further complicate that reading with an ensemble cast of new formal and material characters. They set an almost impossible task for themselves, and it is no surprise the finished product disappoints. This is one instance where less ambition would be preferable, an understated Brando rather than a convoluted Hopper. While I appreciate that the University administration has branched out and hired an out-of-town architect for this project, it seems to this author that they could have gotten something this slapdash from anyone under the sun.

Observations on Ingenuity and Appropriation

Lifeline, part of Ingenuity Festival (Cleveland, OH), September 24th-26th 2010

The proletarian revolution is that critique of human geography whereby individuals and communities must construct places and events commensurate with the appropriation, no longer just of their labor, but of their total history.[1]

Without pretense to revolution, many in Cleveland, Ohio are taking it upon themselves to critique the physical and social geography of their city, questioning, however temporarily, the viability and vitality of underutilized spaces. Most recently, this phenomenon took form in the staging of Ingenuity Festival on the derelict trolley level of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge from September 24th to 26th.

Ingenuity has been held at various locations in Cleveland for six years, but only this year has it found its unlikely and inimitable home. Abandoned since trolley service ceased in 1954, the bridge’s lower level once connected public transit from near west neighborhoods to downtown. In recent years this massive piece of infrastructure, nearly two thirds of a mile long and 75 feet wide, has piqued interest as a potential public amenity on par with New York’s High Line. Ingenuity, in concert with last year’s Bridge Project, organized with the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, have brought upwards of ten thousand visitors to judge for themselves.

Aside from the bridge occupation itself, Ingenuity’s most visible appropriation came at the hands of artists Kidist Getachew, Michael Lehto, and John Thomas, who, in collaboration with the City of Cleveland Division of Water, created a sixty foot waterfall at the apex of Veteran’s Memorial, plummeting one hundred thirty feet to the Cuyahoga River below. This urban waterfall was obviously derivative of Olafur Eliasson’s similar work for New York in 2008, but transposed to Cleveland it became an unavoidable reminder of the city’s greatest natural resource, and a fundraiser for fresh water access in Ethiopia.

Notable among the many performances hosted by Ingenuity was “The Myth of Cleveland,” a play by a group of young thespians on the myth of Sisyphus. Characters pushed a papier-mâché boulder up one of the bridge’s many access ramps, only to have it roll back down, a metaphor for the futility, but also necessity, of reviving a city long since in decline. The ten-minute play ran every hour on the hour during the entire three-day festival. In what may have been the festival’s most astute but least time-consuming installation, some modern-day psychogeographer simply scrawled on the bridge’s concrete structure in chalk: Guy Debord!

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 126.