Great American Tower by Gyo Obata

Great American Tower by Gyo Obata

Sigh… I try not to complain too much on this blog, but I’ve got some vitriol brewing in response to this project under construction downtown, the Great American Tower designed by Gyo Obata.

A frequently repeated tidbit about this project is that it was inspired by Princess Diana’s tiara, as mentioned in this press release:

The legend of the tiara says that HOK founding partner Gyo Obata had an image of Princess Diana’s tiara as an inspiration to create the top of the building. One of Cincinnati’s nicknames is the Queen City, so there is a link to royalty.

Really, boo? You’re lazily capitalizing on a pop cultural coincidence? Why not just say, “Due to Cincinnati’s conservative reputation and its apparent discomfort with sexuality, I thought it would be funny to design a giant phallus to loom over the skyline.” Because that’s essentially what you’ve done.

Actually, that’s not the root of my issue. Obata is no starchitect, but his firm, HOK has built up an impressive body of commissions over the years, including projects like the new Indianapolis airport and the National Air and Space Museum in DC. The Great American Tower, though it’s significant for Cincinnati, is surely not one of the firm’s defining projects. For a career spanning 60 or so years, this may be a drop in the bucket for Obata.

My annoyance has more to do with Obata having studied at Cranbrook, my alma mater, under the great Eero Saarinen, no less. Saarinen’s own body of work was innovative and visionary but, unlike some of the recent starchitectural commissions, his structures manage to be very context-specific. What’s context-specific, or innovative, or visionary about the Great American Tower? [Don’t mention its LEED features — that’s great, but I can’t really see them.]

To be fair, my understanding of Saarinen’s work has been shaped by the simplifying filter of history. I don’t really know what he thought or taught, how impactful the academic experience may have been for Obata, or the long-term influence it may have on him now. I’m projecting when I imagine how seriously Obata might have taken his studies, and the deep philosophical link between him and his mentor. In fact, even the word “mentor” is a projection on my part.

They hired a distinguished architect, and all I got is this lousy phallus.


19 thoughts on “Great American Tower by Gyo Obata

  1. It is kinda hard to design a skyscraper that is not a phallus. This one is kinda stubby as far as that goes.

    I think the tiara part, if internally lit properly could be pretty cool.

  2. I wonder how much the influence the budget and clients had.
    It is disappointing not to get an inspiring and innovative new building.

  3. That oft-quoted Princess Diana anecdote sounds like a bunch of lazy BS to me. I mean, really, Cincinnati’s skyline should be dominated by a building inspired by the tiara worn by a British princess, because the Queen City and the queen-who-never-was have what exactly in common? There’s a link to royalty? Give me a break; this makes architecture seem so capricious and self-indulgent.

    By comparison, Libeskind’s declaration that The Ascent “will inspire a region. It is a call to greatness,” sounds reasonable because, okay, The Ascent does ascend.

  4. Is anybody else annoyed at the growing amount of “safe” options from world class architects in Cincinnati? I mean, most of the buildings are fairly decent in their own right, but compared the the more innovative works done by the architects, pretty disappointing. Ascent is alright but not a show-stopper, I like CAC but it certainly doesn’t compare to Hadid’s other works, The Gehry building on UC’s medical campus leaves something to be desired (it just seems like a lackluster application of brick over a curved surface), and now this. I mean DAAP is probably one of the more outstanding works, but a few years in and it already feels pretty aged, with some pretty heavy wear on the outside. Anyways, I would just like to see something push the boundaries just a little more. Maybe some rich people should step up and build a few modern overhanging villas on Mount Adams and push the limits a little. Just a thought. We have a great historical architectural heritage, but we need to tie it in and break into some more designs that push the new limits while respecting the past, rather than limiting renown architects to lame projects.

  5. Matt, I’m annoyed. I do have to defend Hadid’s CAC, though, as I think it’s a really context-sensitive design that respects its neighbors. The inside galleries are amazing when they’re used to their full advantage. The only thing that bothers me about that design is the central staircase — as someone of almost average height, I don’t understand why traversing the stairs is such an awkward, uncomfortable experience. Anyway, that complaint is nothing compared to the issues I have with this upcoming Dianafication of our skyline.

  6. Watch the The Fountainhead – they show it on TCM from time to time and it pretty much explains what you find unfathomable. Some people do what their sponsors want them to do. Other’s get in a lot of trouble. Cincinnati in particular is a father knows best – do what they want you to do kind of place. It’s unlikely that the building’s sponsors would establish a relationship with a company that insisted on being innovative and visionary. You can take a look at some of the sponsor’s other recent structures if you don’t believe that. At least the top of the building isn’t a revolving digital thermometer. But I’m sure that was considered.

    As far as which school they went to … Bernie Madoff went to my school — but then so did Jonas Salk and Richard Feynman. Of course it was a public school and they had to let everyone in.

  7. Hmm, I can try to watch The Fountainhead, but I am not a fan of Ayn Rand’s brand of tripe. I know that Cincinnati isn’t the most progressive area and that, in the grand scheme of things, this can’t be a really important commission for Obata or HOK, but it is going to transform the skyline and, as that, the city deserves better.

    I know I’m picking on Obata because of Cranbrook, but it’s a tiny school, so I tend to notice when my life in some way intersects with another alum. More than most graduate programs, each department is defined by its single instructor, and the students tend to be more philosophically bound than in larger programs. Still, I don’t expect Obata to be a Saarinen Mini-Me… [Libeskind also has a Cranbrook connection, having taught there during the 70s.]

  8. since we’re on tangential connections, I used to DJ parties at Cranbrook in the early portions of this decade(Guy Fawkes Day….Seriously Moonlight in the summer)….always fun.

    On a more serious note, I would agree that QCSII is not the transformative edifice that one would’ve hoped. Having just returned from the blandalicious Banks presentation yesterday, it seems to be, unfortunately, par for the course. That said, however, I am not as down on this city’s architectural offerings as some of the others, particularly the CAC. While the Pelli, Eisenman, Gehry and Graves offerings may not be their signature pieces, they are nothing to sneeze at either. The Ascent…I see it every day from my desk. I am not a huge fan, but it certainly ascribes to DL’s vision (I originally envisioned it as being much taller).

  9. The Cranbrook thing isn’t really a tangent: Obata studied under the man who famously declared, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Look at that rendering again.

  10. I agree with the comments on Vontz, especially when compared to the Peter B Lewis School of Business in Cleveland, but guess what, Lewis, since he was writing the checks pushed for the building to be as cutting edge as possible.

    But the new Rec Center now, how incredifreakin awesome is that?
    And ERC isn’t terrible either.

  11. Pingback: Ties by Cyberoptix Tie Lab « Visualingual

  12. As a Saarinen student myself I am somewhat astonished by your rude, crude analysis of this design. A downtown office building might fit within an individual design movement, but still be considered art-deco to accomodate other Cincinnati design, or internationally styled. The main reason for this is the architects focus on functionality as opposed to design. Don’t get caught up in crowns, a panache or the architects “motivation” for art- what we must consider is the impact of the design on the skyline and vertical design, (Cincinnati has a very iconic, vertical skyline; you were expecting a Pereira Pyramid perhaps?) the buildings functionality and advancement of structrual form. Crude descriptors like phallus are a crutch and exhibit a total lack of true critical abilities.

  13. Thanks so much for your thoughts, but we’ll have to agree to disagree. I do not see a deep connection between either this design and its surrounding context or this design and our moment in time. I can’t attest to the building’s functionality, but I do not recognize the “advancement of structural form,” certainly not at the level befitting the immense impact the building will have on the downtown Cincinnati skyline.

    How can someone in my position not get “caught up” in the crown or in the architect’s own explanation for the design, when those gestures are [partly, at least] made for the benefit of someone like me? These gestures do the field no favors. Like I said, they give the impression of caprice rather than scholarship.

  14. obata has been designing blandness and crap since his first two truly-inspired masterpieces in slouis in the 1950’s [their planetarium and the chapel at Priory Institute]. No surprise here. Haven’t seen anything about what will go on INside the tiara. It could be a great public space, or nothing at all. It’s not surprising that obata picked out something from a magazine [although if you google diana’s tiara, they – not “it” – look nothing like obata’s crown],since he has been nothing but trendy in the past decade. The rest fo the building is bulky and the curtain wall is just another cheesy ho-hum like the rows of curtain walls on Sixth Avenue in NYC [see Time-Life Building as an example]. It doesn’t hold a candle to the fine and dignified Carew Tower. But Cincinnati got off easy. obata built the two most horrid globs of tripe of his “career” in downtown stlouis – the eagleton courthouse [appropriately named, for the guy who was responsible for that city’s bulbous, whale-like roofed football stadium] and the godzilla-like green-roofed monster that completely dominates that city’s roof-[NOT ” sky”]line, giving the constant finger to the Gateway Arch.

  15. And, btw, maybe you’ve been sucking too hard, but if anything, that taco-like headdress on the building looks like a vulva, not a phallus. Unusual, since the traditional skyscrapers are pretty mcuh all phalluses, aren’t they? Your lingual might need adjustment.

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