Cleveland’s architects, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin, have grown dazed and confused. They share an unsettling feeling that too many projects are awarded to out-of-town firms when the skills and capability are here. When yet another commission is handed to a firm from London or New York, the local reaction is yet another grimace.“The entire country is going through a process of ‘buy local, support local,’ ” says Steven Kordalski, owner of Kordalski Architects. “Architecture and design in Cleveland has not caught up to the local farmers market.” The list of projects designed out of the city — which means business, money and prestige sent elsewhere — increases every year: the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse renovation, the Global Center for Health Innovation, the Lumen in Playhouse Square, the Cleveland Museum of Art expansion, and, most recently, the new headquarters of the Cleveland Foundation in Midtown, among many others.
“We’re just not given the projects that we’d like to get,” says Christopher Toddy, of Christopher @ Architects and president of the Cleveland chapter of the American Institute of Architects, who stresses he sees improving local relationships as a key step.
The issue was highlighted most recently by a blistering July 14 editorial in Crain’s Cleveland Business. William Eberhard, whose work includes the Technology Learning Center at Cuyahoga Community College’s main campus, bluntly called the Cleveland Foundation’s decision to hire Pascale Sablan of S9, a New York firm, to design its new Midtown headquarters “a betrayal.” Especially, he wrote, because the Foundation’s mission is to uplift the local community. The decision, he wrote, was emblematic of a business community failing to recognize local designers. Eberhard might be the most recent to raise the issue, but it’s been discussed for years. Kordalski raised it in 2012.
The problem dates back to postwar decline. The city has proudly displayed its architectural can-do and excellence in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. Think Wade Park, the Arcade, Trinity Cathedral and the amazing work of Walker and Weeks, which included the Hope Memorial Bridge, Cleveland Public Auditorium, Severance Hall, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the Cleveland Public Library. But as the 1950s passed, the city began looking beyond its borders when it came to design work.
One root of the problem has been the city’s inferiority complex. In 1950, more than 900,000 called Cleveland home. But then came financial insolvency and the burning river and the exodus to the suburbs. Today, the city’s population is estimated at 390,000 (and declining), and while national jokes have dissipated, they have not gone away. Cleveland has come a long way, but our tendency to underestimate ourselves remains.
Local designers believe this matters because they are of and about the city. They also believe they have the ability and skills to translate that hometown feeling into excellent designs. According to Eberhard, 21% of the members of the American Institute of Architects in Ohio are registered in the Cleveland chapter, and in the last 10 years they have won 52% of the AIA Ohio Design Awards. Eberhard estimates that awarding commissions to out-of-town firms takes $100 to $160 million out of Cleveland. Using the Brookings Institute or the Federal Reserve’s multipliers, Eberhard says that equates to between $800 million and $1.2 billion.
“The perception from local architects is that they are not being considered when there are good options here,” says John C. Williams of Process Creative Studios, who designed Heinen’s downtown and Transformer Station. “It’s really up to the client to do their own due diligence, not only for themselves but for the community.”
All understand the competitive process, and all understand business may go elsewhere. They admit some of their work is in other cities. What they want, though, is to be given due consideration on Cleveland’s big projects. More than one architect conceded their peers are afraid to speak out on the issue because doing so might cost them work.
Some designers were disappointed that the Cleveland Foundation’s process was not more public. Local designers didn’t know the Foundation had moved to the point of a rendering until it released a drawing. With disappointment, however, comes the recognition that Sablan, who was given the commission, is a talented African-American woman who won the 2018 Young Architects Award.
“The profession has too little diversity, too few females in positions of leadership,” says Jack Bialosky Jr., of Bialosky Cleveland. “For the Cleveland Foundation to make that kind of hire sets an example, and I think that is a very good thing.”
For its part, the Foundation says that it did consider local architects and that most of the money spent on the project will be spent in Cleveland. The Foundation also has said there will be a collaboration with a local firm, which may result in that firm having input in the design.
“I think it’s a very good thing,” Bialosky says. “But I think the best thing would have been for them to hire a Cleveland architect to do this job by themselves. I think there are people here who meet all of their criteria.”Local architects also lament the practice of awarding work to out-of-town firms, then hiring local firms as the “architect of record,” the company responsible for the everyday work on the project. Bialosky calls the practice “half a loaf.” Eberhard says it’s like the locals doing the dirty work for the out-of-town “stars who get the plum.”
That criticism is more complicated than it seems, however. Paul Siemborski, principal at DLR Group/Westlake Reed Leskosky, says he can learn by partnering with other firms, and that “all boats rise with the tide.”
SCB, a Chicago firm, was hired to design the Lumen in Playhouse Square, which will include 34 stories of rental units. Art Falco, former CEO and current advisor for special projects of the Playhouse Square Foundation, says that at the start of the project, there hadn’t been a high-rise, multi-family project in Cleveland in 40 years, which led to the selection of a firm with more expertise in that kind of building. Vocon, which has offices locally, was hired as the local project manager. Some have criticized the sheer-glass tower, however, saying it is derivative of one SCB already designed in Milwaukee.
“What’s missed though is the opportunity to build a building that best fits the context of Playhouse Square and Cleveland,” Toddy says. “It’s not a Cleveland building; it’s a Milwaukee building. That’s disappointing.”
It is as if some local decision-makers feel that they can’t get something special without going to big-city firms. But if more local architects were given the chance to prove themselves, they might be able to produce architecture that reflects their community, and perhaps even advance local design to define a renewed Cleveland-centric style, something that speaks to our city and the world. A sense of pride in self and city would grow. Provincialism for its own sake helps nobody, but this fight is worth fighting.
“Yes, we’d like to see Cleveland architectural firms win more of the signature projects in town,” Toddy says. “From my perspective that’s a relationship-building exercise that’s ongoing and can further develop.”As Frank Lloyd Wright said: “Without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization.”