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UC’s New Rec Center Is An Exercise In Geometry

Architects for the University of Cincinnati’s new Campus Recreation Center – Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne and Kristina Loock – readily admit the structure is the most complex their firm has completed on this large a scale. They’ve dubbed the building – which is set to open Feb. 6 – as their “opportunity in extremes.”

Date: 11/21/2005 12:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Lisa Ventre and from Messer Construction

UC ingot  

As it builds toward the future, the University of Cincinnati is celebrating the completion of its new Campus Recreation Center, a structure that will loom large indeed on a campus already studded with masterpieces – “starchitecture” if you will – by the nation’s most celebrated architects.

At 350,000 square feet, UC’s new rec center is larger than any other project so far completed as part of the university’s ambitious Master Plan. In addition, the new center is arguably the most complex of these signature architecture projects.

But it didn’t start out that way. When the architectural team behind the Campus Recreation Center first sketched the outlines of the structure seven years ago, the project was no more than that – a simple recreation center. Since then though, it’s “morphed” into five buildings in one, according to principal architect Thom Mayne of the architectural firm, Morphosis in Santa Monica, Calif. Last June, Mayne became the first American in 14 years to win the world’s most coveted architectural award, the Pritzker Prize.

Said Mayne, “It’s the most complicated building I have done in my life. It’s really five buildings.”

Collaborators Kristina Loock, project architect with Morphosis; Dale Beeler, senior architect with local firm KZF Design, Inc.; and Ron Kull, university architect, agree. “Perhaps,” said Beeler, “Vontz (by architect Frank Gehry and located on UC’s East Campus) is as complex, but this rec center at 350,000 square feet is far, far larger.”

The “five buildings” that constitute the new $112.9-million Campus Recreation Center are:

  • An athletic core
  • Six electronic classrooms
  • Housing
  • Restaurants and dining
  • Stadium grandstands

The “back” or south end of the new rec center serves as the northern terminus for UC’s Nippert Stadium, providing stadium seating topped by a pedestrian bridge and a scoreboard. The grandstands serve as an exclamation point for Nippert, said Kull, while the pedestrian bridge will serve as a campus shortcut “through” the stadium.

“For a long time, Nippert has served to block the natural lines of east-west traffic on campus. All the pathways that naturally led toward and past Nippert had to stop and dogleg around the facility. It was a 24/7 impediment to cross traffic. Not anymore,” stated Beeler.

The facility also includes a 160-seat restaurant – the Marche – overlooking Nippert along with a juice bar and a more informal 400-seat dining facility – CenterCourt – featuring made-to-order specialty pizzas, deli sandwiches, fresh breads, salads and more.

Housing in the center is comprised of 112 suites for upperclassmen. Each suite holds two single bedrooms, private and semi-private baths, along with a shared common area with a mini-kitchen.

The muscular athletic core of the building includes:

  • Eight racquetball courts
  • A six-court basketball arena (also for volleyball and badminton) that is larger than a football field
  • A 50-meter, Olympic-sized lap pool with eight lanes
  • A leisure pool for water aerobics along with a lazy river, water wall, whirlpool and bubble couch
  • A 40-foot climbing wall
  • A 17,000 square-foot fitness and weight area with more than 200 cardio and fitness machines and 10,000 pounds of free weights as well as a cardio theater with eight plasma TVs
  • A mid-air, suspended four-lane jogging track
  • Three multipurpose rooms along with warm-up/stretching areas

"There’s no other recreation facility like it on any other college campus. Theoretically, a student could spend his entire academic career at UC in just this one building,” reported Loock, adding, “It’s become a building with enormous capacity and freedom with its large transparent spaces. It’s a monumental space, and it’s been a monumental challenge.”

The rock-climbing wall

Beeler – who served as the local architect for Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center before coming to this UC project – agreed, “The most challenging part is the building’s geometry. It took me about a year till I understood it. I wondered, ‘Why is it shaped like that?’ It’s incredibly complicated. It’s a brilliant solution for all the needs of campus. It’s the toughest building UC has yet done, but the university has outdone itself.”

Situated on a dramatically sloping site where it’s possible to enter and exit the building at elevations that differ by more than 20 feet, the Campus Recreation Center started out as a much smaller facility located in an area of campus that had once held a small power plant, gym, bookstore and service building. Over time, programmatic needs and the evolving design plan on campus required a more expansive structure on this dense site.

The rec center grew in scale because of changes in other campus projects, according to Ron Kull. Initially, he explained, UC’s Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center was to have contained student housing. Instead, that space was eventually used to provide offices for student groups and does not include housing. The university was also short on classroom space, especially larger spaces for groups of 60 to 80 people. The best options for providing such amenities became the recreation center – which would then require accompanying food-service options.  

The rec center's roofscape seamlessly continues the oval curve of the stadium's stands until meeting the straight edge of the center's Northeast portion

“With this building, we always went higher and higher and deeper and deeper,” said Loock. “As architects, we had to grow into this. The building simply wanted to be this big.”

Both she and Mayne see the building, principally, as a sculpture and as a “roofscape” that is entirely visible from Nippert Stadium.  The west end of the structure abuts Nippert and the roof line of the rec center seamlessly continues the curving sweep of Nippert’s oval-shaped grandstands. On its east side, the rec center roof is a sharp, up-and-down straight edge, a foil to the curving roofline on the opposite end of the structure. “There,” explained Loock, “We were responding to the dramatic geometric forms that rise up in the green space that surrounds the north and east ends of the center. All the steel panels that form the roof’s covering layer taper in one direction or the other. The roof was definitely difficult.” 

The suspended running track

Thirty-five skylights of various shapes and sizes – from large ovals to small circles – are punched through the roof to allow sunshine to pour down into the building. An urban legend has already developed in regard to the skylights, according to Beeler. Supposedly, the Morphosis architects put paint on a toothbrush and flicked it over their designs for the building. Wherever a paint splotch landed, that became the placement point, shape and size for the center’s hodge podge of skylights.

To emphasize the sculptural elements of the building, the interior palette of the building were deliberately muted: Grays with accents of chartreuse, green and white. Kull explained that the grey, green and white used within the structure recall the grey, green and white of Nippert Stadium – the grey of the grandstands along with the green of the field overlayed with white stripes.

The outside – clad with painted aluminum and steel – is designed to blend with the zinc cladding of the adjacent Tangeman University Center and the Steger Student Life Center. 

The six-court basketball arena

As the rec center sets to open, all the architects involved in the project claim they will miss it. Beeler has worked on this project for four years while Mayne and Loock have worked on it for seven. As an exercise in geometry, it’s reshaped his life. “After working with Zaha Hadid and Thom Mayne on such landmark projects, it’s hard to imagine my life without this kind of challenge…I don’t know how I’ll go back to the projects I worked on before,” stated Beeler.

Campus Recreation Center Completes UC’s MainStreet
The Campus Recreation Center is the last link in the University of Cincinnati’s MainStreet corridor which stretches on an east-to-west diagonal line on West Campus. The links on the MainStreet chain stretch from University Pavilion on the west to Tangeman University Center, the Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center, the Campus Recreation Center to Turner and Schneider Residence Halls to the east.  Woven throughout the buildings, as an integral part of MainStreet, are acres of green space designed by award-winning landscape architects and planners Hargreaves Associates and local partners Glaserworks.

To read more on MainStreet, visit


Past Achievements in UC’s Master Plan

The previous MainStreet projects were

  • Three acres of green space designed by Hargreaves Associates and local firm Glaserworks opened in stages with the final portions completed in September 2004.
  • Joseph A. Steger Student Life Center by Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners of Santa Monica in partnership with Glaserworks opened in May 2004.
  • Jefferson Residence Hall Complex by KZF Design, Inc. opened in September 2002.

A selection of other Master Plan projects on campus