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From the Design Quarterly: Bringing an urban campus together for the better

October 02, 2018

From the client's perspective: How the new Cleveland Institute of Art reinvigorates a school, its staff, and a neighborhood

By Dan Cuffaro and Grafton J . Nunes, Cleveland Institute of Art

The Campus Unification Program for the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) involved a renovation of the century-old Joseph McCullough Center for the Visual Arts and construction of the new George Gund Building. In this blog, associate professor/chair of industrial design Dan Cuffaro and President Grafton J. Nunes explain how the new campus design transformed not only their physical space but has dramatically changed the institute’s culture.

Bringing vision and mission into play

At the Cleveland Institute of Art, we faced a challenging situation with two aging facilities (a former Ford factory and a building dating from 1955) that were uncomfortably far apart. 

They looked tired and were difficult to maintain with inefficient systems that left students and faculty frigid in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Their dated interiors were a disincentive to recruiting students and faculty. We found ourselves slipping in the competition for top tier design talent and in our ability to operate effectively from a curricular and financial point of view. We drew inspiration from our organizational vision and mission and decided to make a big change. We decided to consolidate our campus near the indestructible Albert Kahn-designed McCullough Building—which began its life in 1913 as an assembly plant for Model T Fords. In the first phase, we renovated the historic building. The second phase involved the design and construction of a new 80,000-square-foot adjacent building, the George Gund Building. Together, our campus is now 250,000 square feet, connected by a soaring three-story atrium that acts as a new heart for the CIA and, importantly, connects the school to the vibrant city neighborhood beyond.

The George Gund Building, an 80,000-square-foot addition to the McCullough Building, which started life in 1913 as an assembly plant for Model T Fords. It's the home for the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Open and flexible

Our main objective was for the space to be as open and flexible as possible so that the architecture not dictate the curriculum. Programming and planning had to maximize the efficiency in the new campus. Both the Gund and McCullough buildings were designed with an open plan and sightlines for maximum flexibility. Ultimately, while we reduced the total square footage, the new unified campus feels open, efficient, and visually stunning.

Keep pace with change

Flexibility is crucial from year to year or decade to decade. The three departments on the design floor are open plan. As the size of those departments change, we have the flexibility to expand the space in one major and reduce the space for another major. Even if the trends change and we decide that these open spaces are untenable, we can divide it up as we see it. The space allows decades of flexibility.

Encourage interdisciplinary collisions

Design at its core is collaborative. Honing the craft of design needs to be collaborative, too. Studios and departments are configured to allow students to interact and see each other working.

We have single state-of-the-art shop facilities that are used by any student in the school and clusters of computer labs that are not owned by any discipline. By doing so we intentionally create collision points, places where students bump into each other and work side-by-side. A sculpture, an industrial design, and a foundation student can work in the fabrication facility on projects, see what others are doing, and be inspired or informed by it. It’s a place that lends itself to cross pollination and cross disciplinary solutions.

The three-story atrium provides collaboration zones at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Stantec Architecture received the Cleveland Engineering Society’s (CES) Award of Excellence in Design and Construction, a leading peer reviewed competition of significant new projects in the Greater Cleveland area. The Cleveland Institute of Art’s George Gund Building tied for first place honors for new buildings with construction costs greater than $20 million.

Showcase the cutting-edge

Tech-oriented, emerging, or popular majors such as industrial design, interior architecture, graphic design, game design, animation, biomedical art, and illustration occupy the new structure in contemporary spaces. This highlights CIA as cutting-edge to prospective students, while the open-plan, highly collaborative interactive spaces prepare students for what they’ll see working in design or architectural firms, entertainment studios or advertising agencies.

Opens to the neighborhood

The new structure faces the new neighborhood of Uptown. The image of the school is the new structure and that’s important in this emerging area. From a recruitment point of view, arrival at CIA is now a very contemporary experience. There’s visual drama, and that makes an impression.

It was important that our new campus be accessible to the neighborhood at the ground level, as it houses one of the country’s best repertory movie theaters, the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, and our gallery and library off the main entrance on the doorstep of Uptown. The building design capitalizes on foot traffic through an active neighborhood of retail, restaurants, and residences. The neighborhood has urban energy—and art and design schools thrive on urban energy.

Flexibility is crucial from year to year or decade to decade. The three departments on the design floor are open plan. As the size of those departments change, we have the flexibility to expand the space in one major and reduce the space for another major.​

Campus culture

The central atrium space and new café is like our quad or “campus” living room, providing visual and physical connectivity. People see each other going for coffee or sandwiches. It’s a medium for people to connect with each other in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s a game-changer in terms of the interaction of the overall community.

When the faculty was divided over two buildings, there was active animosity and lack of respect between one group and another. In our old facility, the administrative wing was very disconnected. For the first time, the faculty and the staff are part of a shared community. Now you walk out of the president’s office and you’re staring through windows at the jewelry and metals department. The leadership of the school comes face-to-face with the students. There’s a greater sense of unity and shared mission. We’re all working together. We’re all in the same boat.

“In our old facility, I used to direct people to my department by saying ‘Walk across the parking lot, past the dumpster onto the loading dock, into the basement and turn right at the restroom,’” Dan Cuffaro says. “I told the design team for the new building that when giving directions. I don’t want to say, ‘parking lot, dumpster, loading dock, basement, or restroom.’ That simple experience did not reflect who we are or what we aspire to be. All of that has changed now.”

The renovated McCullough Building and new George Gund Building combine to create a 250,000-square-foot building that brings together teaching studios, classrooms, galleries, auditorium space, and offices in a setting that inspires and motivates.

A catalyst for community

We started construction during the great recession, as the world around us seemed to be collapsing, and our campus development became an anchor for the resurgence of the whole neighborhood. We put a stake in the ground and it provided an amazing ripple effect. When you bring 650 students into a deserted neighborhood, you anchor that neighborhood. It starts to feel safer. It reveals its economic potential.

Financially sound

Less than three years after opening, our total project costs of $75 million are just about completely paid. Lower construction costs, and the sale of our old facility helped us. But with the quality of space now matching the quality of our program, we’ve experienced an interesting coalition of donors, philanthropists, and corporations who want to be part of the CIA organization. We’ve also leveraged state and federal government tax credits and capital expenditures to raise every nickel necessary to pay off this building.


Student studio spaces are visible, so you see the work of the college happening outside the door, which is helpful for admissions tours. A lot of our peer institutions in schools of art and design are as old as us but suffering from deferred maintenance. We’ve invested in ourselves and our students, and we’re ahead of the game now.

The new campus has dramatically improved recruiting. We’re receiving thousands more inquiries. It’s broadened our demographic and increased acceptance of our offer letters. We’ve grown from 450 students in a five-year program to about 650 in a four-year program. We’re producing graduates at a higher rate. We’re on a better footing financially. We’ve expanded dramatically in a short period of time and decreased our square footage!

Today, CIA is full of light and air and space and it’s so uplifting. Our students, faculty and staff feel respected in doing their work in an attractive, professional space. They feel that their work is seen in the best possible light. The students have upped their game in this environment and we’re proud to set them on a path to a bright future in the arts.


About the authors

Dan Cuffaro is an associate professor and the chair of industrial design at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Grafton J. Nunes is the president of CIA.

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