Re_envision: Pittsburgh

Coming out of Design Pittsburgh 2014, there are constant reminders about the city, the people and what makes this place so great.  In itself, Pittsburgh is a diverse and eclectic city whose architecture (mostly) lends itself to its earlier heydays when money wasn't an object and the skies were painted black by the bellowing coke plant smoke.  Today, our skies are blue and our green is some of the greenest in the country - for an urbanscape, that is - but our architecture still reminds us of our darker days both through design and technology.  As a city boasting itself as a technological hub for the world, we certainly do not have the architecture to back it.  The only places a traveler would be likely to find (somewhat) breathtaking architecture is on the college campuses in Oakland, some scattered residences in Point Breeze or Shadyside, and a few slightly bolder structures downtown. Besides that, the city boasts itself on celebrated works from the early 20th century that have little relevance in today's standard for good architecture, these buildings simply stand as reminders of the great things that once built them.  This isn't to say the current portfolio of structures are irrelevant as buildings and pieces of architectural masterpieces, however they are outdated and preserved in a way that appeases only half of the architectural palette.  The other half has been laid to the wayside in lieu of cheap, boxy and prosaic works that do little to spur our imagination let alone architectural bragging rights.  

Why is Good Architecture Important to a City?

OMA's design for MahaNakhon - Thailand

OMA's design for MahaNakhon - Thailand

The term 'good architecture' is relative to not only people but also location, financial standing, and social makeup.  Good architecture for the sake of this discussion points back to an avant-garde, an architecture that is methodically thought out and implemented.  It is an architecture that challenges traditional convention and spurs conversation.  Ultimately, it is geographically anchored in social, climatic and economic conditions while still understanding a need to be more than just a simple solution to such a complex inquiry.  Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the architecture that has been produced in the past 15 years has been on the border of undistinguished with a few dashes of adequate.  With exception of very few slightly audacious projects, the city has yet to see a true display of projects that substantiate a place that has swung from the darkest of days to some of brightest - in the world. 

Good architecture is quite important to a place.  Not only will it define through visuals, it creates the built topography which represents each of us when we proudly say "I'm from Pittsburgh".  Cities that have fallen behind with their architecture see less tourism, less population growth and less pride demonstrated from those actually living there.  Architecture is a defining factor for a city and its people, without a true exhibition of bold built environments, cities become drab and trite and often fall behind in many other areas, not only their ability to pull tourism in.  It all starts with architecture - the entity which facilitates every single human action - audacious architecture is imperative. 

Architecture and Tourism

Architecture boosts tourism.  Whether its regional colleges or just architectural/cultural junkies, the built environment in a city can spur spikes in tourism.  New buildings (especially those either designed by a highly-held firm or those which are trend-setters) have a tendency to spark interest in a place.  New buildings inherently revitalize their context, often encapsulating surrounding properties in the 'fix-it-up' mood where investments are made to their spaces.  Cities with a wide variety of architectural anomalies tend to see huge bursts of tourists who want to experience the tallest skyscraper or see the newest museum housing a controversial collection of art.  Atop that, these tourists then go on to explore the rest of the city, eat in the city and lodge in the city which generates additional revenue. 

Improved Quality of Life

Buildings which are designed and overseen by an architect (team) tend to be a much higher quality.  Materiality and spatially, these edifices help provide a more positive environment for those living and working in them.  Quick responses to a developer for a small revenue are a lot of buildings popping up around Pittsburgh as we speak.  Barring two newer developments in the downtown area, the display of architecture over the last ten-fifteen years has been destitute with responses that can just as easily be created by a non-trained professional. Perhaps that is why there still are empty spaces in the city and still many individuals who do not see living downtown as an option.  The architecture around us in the city center and the outer-lying areas is desolate and antiquated, modernizing a lot of these spaces or building anew would revitalize people's hope in their city.  New York's W57 development is a strong statement of new urban dwelling with plenty of greenspace and beautiful views out. Pittsburgh has many opportunities to make this progressive approach towards city dwelling, especially as urban density continues to grow denser. 

Courtesy of BIG Architects

Courtesy of BIG Architects

Builds a Progressive Identity

Architecture defines a place.  With a natural green and hilly beauty already surrounding the city, Pittsburgh's benefit from a progressive and more impulsive architecture would help build upon our already soaring reputation.  When new structures are erected and they don't even differentiate from all of the others on the block that have been built over the last 50 years, it demonstrates a place that is afraid of change.  Being quite the opposite, Pittsburgh should embrace more daring designs by local firms that are willing to follow their true artistic passions.  If these local architects aren't willing to follow through with more daring designs, then therein may lie the problem with our bleak buildings.  Through a more progressive architecture, we can further our technological and social advancements.  Inspiring spaces incite inspiring productions whether in a laboratory or a hospital. 

Reflective of Beliefs and Values of the People

Perhaps the most important reality of producing and promoting good architecture is that it is synonymous with the beliefs and values of the constituents living in a place.  When unchanged and bleak architecture continue to shine through, our external appearance is that of a struggling city still trying to find an identity.  Pittsburgh is actually quite the opposite, it is a booming city with a defiant personality towards progression and change.  While there are still plenty of older generations here, they have bolstered and remained helping maintain the economy and growth of one of the fastest growing cities in the country.  Currently our architectural identity manifests the city's identity as an industrial town with a few glimmers of hope.  How can the next building project begin to redefine our built (and human) identity?   

What is the Answer?

Roger Duffy (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP) spoke of the balance of design and extremely small budgets for the projects he jurored in this year's DP2014.  While he was correct that the budgetary restrictions in Pittsburgh are laughable in comparison to larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles or London, the quality of design shouldn't be hindered by monetary confines.  The work that was on the walls that night could have been better, whether or not there was enough money to cover the full intent, design is about problem solving and solutions aren't always going to be as clearly mapped and easily resolved as they appear. Clearly, there were several projects that did push the boundaries from some of the more notable firms around the city, but overall there was an exasperated sigh in much of what as presented.  As a progressing city on the verge of its largest growth since its inception, the architecture and design of the built environment should be more representative of this excitement and grandeur occurring. Instead, it seemed as if some of the projects exalted a breath of stale air only to receive exiguous compensation with little or no stunning triumphs.

While there certainly was a lackluster exhibition by a large majority of the projects, there must be some pressure taken off of these firms and more put on the true culprit behind what actually gets built.  

The Client.  

If this city wants to continue to strive towards progressive measures to stand out with the rest of those around the world, it must seek clients who have the same vision and ambition. Clients ultimately will drive the project, but those who are willing to put more value into their product will see a larger return on investment as well as receive accolades for being supportive of progression.  It's not easy to convince building owners to continually increase their allowance to architectural projects, but allow them to see that their efforts will help make the place they call home a much better city.  Are there additional developers from outside of the city (i.e. some of those looking into the Produce Terminal) that could be brought in to fund some more dynamic projects? How can the attitude of those who are providing the work from within be changed to garner a deeper appreciation for design and innovation?  It's time to push bolder ideas and seek more progressive architecture.  Stale design eventually illustrates stagnant places, to remain competitive in all that the city does it must remember what literally shapes it. Great design doesn't start with the designer, it starts with the individual funding their efforts and their mentality towards progression and innovation.