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Issue Date: November 2004 Issue


Bricks and Order

Christopher Diehl never expected to find his architectural muse inside a German coffee shop. But as he listened to his classmates at Frankfurt's tiny Stadelschule Academy of Arts debate filmmaking, he realized how much architects obsess about size and proportion.


Architect Christopher Diehl injects an artist's passion into his creations, whether he’s infusing Beachwood’s year-old middle school with a sweet dose of nostalgia or weaving African textile into the design of East Cleveland's new Shaw High School.
Jim Vickers
vickers@clevelandmagazine.com

The Ones That Got Away--

Christopher Diehl cautions a visitor to his Warehouse District office to be wary of architects with too many building models on display — it means they didn't get the job. Still, Diehl isn't the kind of guy who gets upset when his concepts don't make the cut. In fact, some of his most striking ideas for downtown Cleveland are lofty ones he's thrown out during idea competitions in an effort to help pry the city away from its historically conservative architectural nature. "I found that from teaching for so many years, if you only aim for what's safe or doable, there's so much opportunity that's lost," Diehl says. Take, for instance, the striking rendering on his office wall of The Beatles crossing East Ninth Street, surrounded by Diehl's ideas for using different forms of light to set Cleveland's "Rock and Roll Boulevard" apart from the rest of the city's streets. Or how about his twist on former Mayor Mike White's suggestion to build a Ferris wheel along the lakefront. But instead of simply lifting visitors into the sky, Diehl's version takes riders below the surface of Lake Erie with each spin. "All fantastic," Diehl says. "Executable? Probably never, but from the idea of just making it provocative and interesting … I think it was perfect."

Christopher Diehl never expected to find his architectural muse inside a German coffee shop. But as he listened to his classmates at Frankfurt's tiny Stadelschule Academy of Arts debate filmmaking, he realized how much architects obsess about size and proportion.

"Filmmakers don't do that. Filmmakers talk about experience," recalls Diehl, director of design at the Cleveland office of URS. "As an architect, it gave me a different window on how to think about what I did professionally and to think more from the perspective of someone who's going to use a building, live in it and work in it."

He later went to work in London, then Austria and, finally, ended up in Madrid, where he was the only American working for world-famous architect Rafael Moneo. In 1991, the Ohio native moved back to Columbus and taught at Miami University before packing up for Penn State in 1998. But it wasn't long before Diehl and his family felt the urge to return home and he was promptly hired to lead the URS Cleveland office.

"I get to be the quarterback from the design perspective," he says. "I touch nearly every project that comes through the office architecturally."

So, when Beachwood opted to build a new middle school from the ground up — the first building the school district had constructed in many years — Diehl met with school officials to help incorporate a favorite part of the old building into the new design.

"They called the courtyard of the old school ‘The Pit,' " Diehl explains. "It was an area where they had cushions and built-in benches. It wasn't really handsome but everyone adored it. It had a lot of nostalgia, so we wanted to have this courtyard area in the center to be the heart of it all."

Likewise, when it came time to design the yet-to-be-built new Shaw High School, Diehl worked to create a unique structure while staying within the detailed confines of the Ohio Schools and Facilities Commission specifications. "Square footages have to be within one-half of 1 percent of the target, which is extremely difficult," Diehl notes.

When he brought his finished design to school officials, they gave his creation high praise, but then claimed that the sleek, modern design looked more like an art museum than a public high school. In short, it didn't fit the community's personality.

"They challenged us to keep the strong parts of what we had done, but asked us to find a way to genuinely investigate what the community is about."

A school official suggested checking out African textiles for inspiration. The result was a six-week process in which Diehl researched dozens of textile patterns to find a design that would fit. In the end, he chose a textile pattern native to Sierra Leone that will be integrated into the school's brick exterior when the building is completed in fall 2006.

"Architects, if you just put them in a room, can be incredibly boring," Diehl says. "I really enjoy the back and forth and the negotiation that happens with clients. It's part negotiation, part partnership and part therapy."


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