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CLIENT: University of Cincinnati, Ron Kull, Campus Architect

SITE: Twenty-seven-foot vertical difference between two adjacent public spaces, Library Square and Zimmer Plaza, opposite the engineering school

PROGRAM: Outdoor public stair and seating area

SIZE: 1600 ft2

COST: $.25 million

COMPLETION: November 1996


The need for a new plaza in the midst of an eclectic collection of campus buildings from every period of the University’s history presents an opportunity to create a space-defining sculptural object. This stair folly connects the two principal levels of the plaza, conferring to the plaza a dynamic orientation and a focal point for its otherwise amorphous, flowing spaces.

Located opposite the engineering school, the stair provides an outsized celebration of structural steel. Its logical, but extreme, organization into massive wide-flange bent mainframe, trussed tubular subframe, and stick-built angle-and-channel-stringer assembly makes legible the classic division of labor between servant and served elements in the design, and relates them to the scale of service they provide. Efficiency is not a goal in this design—expression is. In effect this exhorts the young engineers across the plaza to remember both masters: heed the numbers that realize the possible, and listen to the heart because only its enthusiasm for cool stuff may actualize the virtual. The sheer visceral appeal of a W33 that can be touched—its right there!—can affect the contemporary viewer as much as entasis could affect the ancient Greek. To drive home the capabilities of such a handsome piece of steel, the nose of the structure cantilevers from the elbow of the bent, about twenty feet; its broad sweeping snout hovers inches above the plaza without touching down. The structure cantilevers also at the opposite, upper end where it bursts through the parapet guardrail of Zimmer Plaza, announcing the presence of the stair to visitors approaching from above. The northern edge of the stair along its entire length is defined by a solid plate guardrail and the southern, bleacher edge, by a glass guardrail. This reinforces the structure’s sense of orientation to the plaza and the sun, providing a solid edge to the space on the north and an open belvedere condition to the south.

The stair’s traditional role as a gathering place is acknowledged by the inclusion of bleachers along its entire length—ideal accommodation for people-watching, daydreaming, rallies, lunch breaks, meeting, and hormonally-driven encounters. These bleachers serve as well to bulk up the structure to a scale more appropriate to the space it commands and broaden it to a proposition more in balance with its length.

The stair was designed to be erected in three major assemblies, facilitating shop fabrication and transportation. Apart from the W33 subframe, the entire eighty-foot structure was fabricated in California and shipped to the site, nested onto a single flatbed semi-trailer.