The Ascent by Studio Daniel Libeskind: Living in the Clouds
The Ascent at Roebling’s Bridge shows us the possibility of living in the clouds. The newest prestigious address in the Cincinnati area features distinguished high-rise living, a rarity in this area of hills, valleys and single-family homes. The Ascent presides on its small site in Covington, soaring above its dour postmodern neighbors, the Corporex towers, and takes its design cues (both in form and color) from the adjacent Suspension Bridge, designed by John Roebling. The bridge opened in 1866 and was a dry run of sorts for the Brooklyn Bridge, which Roebling designed but would not live to see completed.
Daniel Libeskind created his design for the Ascent from a careful study of the waterfront area in Covington and the multiplicity of views in all directions. View: this was the genesis of the project, the possibility of giving every tenant a unique view of the Ohio River and downtown Cincinnati, of Covington and I-75 to the south, of developing neighbor Newport to the east, of Park Hills and Devou Park to the west. The architect thoroughly studied the entire panorama in order to maximize the visual experience of living in each of the units, from the smallest 900 square foot one-bedroom unit to the thrilling penthouse units at the top. No two views are alike, but all of them are stunning. Every tenant here gets a river view, an egalitarian touch uncommon to high rises. No one stares at a brick wall. The design is holistic; patterns and compositional attributes of the exterior are repeated on the interior, but cleverly and in ways that a lesser architect would quickly drop into boring repetition. The pearl white hue of the concrete panels is matched by the color of the walls in the lobby and by the lush carpet in the penthouse we visited. The modular tile patterns of the concrete and glass panels of the façade are repeated in the tile patterns in the lobby’s walls and floor. The curve of the building is repeated by the shape of the outdoor pool and in the design of the patio and fire pit area. The concrete canopy at the main entrance is cantilevered just as the balconies are. And looking up, one sees the sizes of the balconies are not uniform but changing in a pattern similar to that of the concrete panels on the façade.
Books referenced for this publication that document the architecture of Daniel Libeskind.
Form-wise, the curvilinear building takes its shape from the soaring cables on Roebling’s bridge and from site conditions (a compact square block) in order to create the angled views. A metal frame within supported by concrete columns is enclosed by a curtain wall system (the exterior enclosure wraps completely around the structure of the building, like a curtain), in this case a syncopated rhythm of precast concrete panels and blue glass panels. I have never seen concrete look lighter; the combination of its smooth surface and bright color paired with the glass imparts a feeling of lightness to the whole structure, as if it could take flight. The east and west faces come to a common edge that sweeps to the building’s high point at the top of the curve (over 30 degrees above horizontal), which looks like the prow of a great ship slicing through the air. Just beneath this great arc of concrete and glass lies the Pinnacle, a 7800-square foot, three-story penthouse, the domus maximus, available at $5.4 million. (I’m hoping to put in my bid as soon as I can find a $5 million buyer for my $500 car.)
Resident Steve Frank calls the Ascent “a social building” as tenants enjoy each other’s company for dinner, walks around the neighborhood or special events like the WEBN fireworks. He and his wife are representative of a number of empty-nester tenants who’ve fled the suburbs to live in the city, and to live in a signature building like this with its amenities and aesthetic status makes him “feel like I’m 19 again.” He feels a part of the community, which lesser high-rises can all but eliminate. He mentions the views, the sociability factor (“the unusual, gifted people who live here”) and the comfort factor in living in a modern building with warm, contemporary interiors, which the architect left neutral enough for tenants to customize in their own tastes. The east and west resident elevator banks (two on each side) separate the living units into smaller clusters and eliminate the need for long, institutional corridors. There are no more than three homes in any core lobby. This design move at once imparts a greater sense of privacy and enhances the sociability factor.
The ground floor double-height lobby is criss-crossed with steel strips in the tile floor, which are echoed on the ceiling by crossing strips of recessed lights. This is a signature move of Libeskind’s; force lines that repeat themselves throughout the building, serving in most cases to reinforce the geometric conditions, or forces, at work in the building’s design. At the top of the staircase in the lobby are the public spaces: meeting rooms, a dining room and catering kitchen, a billiard room, a theater/screening room, a children’s playroom, and guest suites. The amenities continue outdoors on the same level to a private patio/gathering area with a custom-designed fire pit and cooking grills. There is also around-the-clock concierge service and limousine service for tenants.
Libeskind sees the Ascent as more than just a modern apartment block; for him the goal was to create a “cultural edifice”, a living member of the river front area that will help define the city and its people. “It has to be symbolic in its own way, and it is. We judge cities not just by their civic buildings. We judge them by: How do people live in those cities? What is the quality of their urban fabric?”
To this point in time there have been precious few residential buildings designed by star architects, usually there is far more prestige and money involved in larger commercial projects. Libeskind’s awareness of the significance of the urban fabric of a city and the way its residents live is an encouraging sign that designers are increasingly aware of humanity as a whole, not just an opinionated few. What if America in the 21st century can be more than freeways, blacktop, bland office buildings and strip malls? Buildings like the Ascent show that it’s possible. It incorporates the basic elements: it’s of the earth in its integral connection to its site, it reaches for the sky and reflects the sky in its glass envelope, it presides over the water of the Ohio River, and it captures the fire of sunset from the west. It’s a work of art that provides a home for its residents. How I wish I was one of them!
Geoff Simmons is an architect based in Cincinnati, Ohio and a writer for Eastsider Magazine