Courtesy Niland Family
Cincinnati lost its most passionate and articulate architectural provocateur with the death of David L. Niland on September 24 at age 80. Although his practice was small, his influence was enormous, since he led the city’s Urban Design Review Board and the University of Cincinnati’s Architectural Review Committee for decades, forcing every architect who built in the city to work a little harder to produce the best possible scheme.
For over 40 years, Niland taught at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning, directing the sixth-year architecture program that students used to call “the David Niland School of Architecture.”
“He had a reputation that struck fear into the hearts of most students,” Cincinnati architect John Senhauser recalled. But “it didn’t take long to realize that he was a brilliant critic and strategist. He suffered no fools. David was tireless. He posted a sign-up sheet for critiques and visited youat your apartment or wherever you were working. He dedicated himself to anyone who took architecture seriously.”
His students went on to found major firms and teach at architecture schools throughout the country, so his influence was exponential.
Niland was born in Cincinnati, where he was a high school football star who played under coach Woody Hayes at Dennison University before Hayes went on to Ohio State and Niland went on to Yale to earn bachelors and masters degrees in architecture in 1959 and ‘60. With his wife Mary Krohn Niland, he then spent a year on a Fulbright Fellowship at the Danish Graduate School for Foreign Students before returning to his hometown, where he taught for more than 40 years.
The only Cincinnati architect of his generation whose work was published internationally, David Niland was one of the country’s most skillful “White” architects. His crisply detailed, geometrically complex, historically referential but frankly modern buildings were almost always stained or painted white. “I have too much respect for color to use it,” he would say, and indeed the color around and inside his buildings did sing in the whiteness. Although he designed mostly houses and a few small projects, like an Education Center for the Cincinnati Art Museum, he proved that it is possible to create exquisite, spirit-enhancing architecture while meeting the complex needs of the disabled. Two of his clients were wheelchair-bound doctors who became so important to him that when he built his own house, he designed it to be accessible to them, with wide corridors, no steps, and easy turnarounds. Here, he used roofs of varying heights to create the ascending and descending processional space typical of his other buildings.
Niland served as a visiting critic and lecturer at colleges all over the country, and received numerous awards, including the ACSA’s Distinguished Professor Award in 1991–92.
Erik Sueberkrop, another former student and a founding partner of Studios Architecture in San Francisco and other cities, explained what it was like to be back under Niland’s tutelage when he was designing a building on the University of Cincinnati Medical School campus. “My last interaction with him was in his capacity as a member of the University’s Architectural Review Committee, commenting on our Crawley Center. David was as usual very animated, passionate, and insightful as he exercised his great command of the English language. We had our share of differences, so the review was fairly lively and intense, but it ended with his giving me an Eastern European bear hug. Needless to say, it caught everyone at the review by surprise, but it summed up David’s persona. He was passionate about debate and commitment to the forces of architecture. In a way, it was his religion. He appreciated this commitment in others and expected, if not demanded, excellence. It is what made him a great teacher. And yet, he could be compassionate. I think David appreciated that everyone had a little different take on his religion.”
It was as a design review critic that Niland had his greatest impact on Cincinnati, Senhauser explained. “It is rare when someone becomes synonymous with an organization as he was with the School of Architecture’s Senior Studio, the city’s Urban Design Review Board, the University’s Architectural Review Committee. No discussion about Cincinnati’s or the university’s architecture can ever be credible without recognition of his contributions to the critical discourse that led to these projects.”