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Places: Is a revamped Steelworkers 'design one solution to city's sign pollution?

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette architecture critic

To sign or not to sign? That's the dilemma before the city Planning Commission, which has been asked to approve a 6-foot-high by 66-foot-long sign on the roof of the United Steelworkers Building.

Sure, it looks like a giant cheese grater from this angle, but there's nothing cheesy about the United Steelworkers Building, which is a landmark in the history of building design and engineering. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

A sign in and of itself is not a bad thing. It can be a very good thing, bringing color, light, visual vitality and information. What would Las Vegas be without signs? The bigger and bolder, the better to lure customers: WAYNE NEWTON. WEDDING CHAPEL. LIVE NUDES.

But on a city's skyline, a sign plays a different role. Nobody navigates by Mellon's big green Ms or the Federated, FreeMarkets or PNC signs. They are billboards, and they turn the buildings to which they are attached into backdrops for ads.

Often a sign is erected long after the building was completed, and the original architects have no input. So the sign ends up looking like a stuck-on afterthought, and the skyline a herd of rounded-up, branded cattle.

The Steelworkers want to use their building to promote their union on national television. The building sits alongside the Monongahela, but the sign would face west, toward the Point and Heinz Field.

Last month, Joe Stuligross, the USW's assistant general counsel, said the union wanted to erect the white and gray, internally illuminated sign because "we want the world to know that Pittsburgh is where this union is from and that there are values in this city that support building good lives for working families."

Well, who isn't for that?

But if the Planning Commission approves the sign, it will be making an exception to a rule adopted after too many branded steers had gotten out of the corral. In December, City Council passed an ordinance banning new signs on the roofs of Downtown and North Shore buildings and limiting the size of new signs that are erected high on their exterior walls. The Steelworkers acknowledge that a high-wall sign would be detrimental to their building's design and function.

So the commission has asked the Pittsburgh Riverlife Task Force, which had expressed concern about the sign, to work with the union to come up with a solution.

"They're looking at materials, placement, colors and overall ability to complement the building and project a steel image," city planner Patrick Hassett said yesterday.

With the completion of PNC Park and Heinz Field, this is a question the commission should expect to face again. While the USW is a sentimental, homegrown favorite, making an exception for any sign atop its building could set a bad precedent. But let's see what Riverlife and the Steelworkers can fashion.

This is, after all, no generic office tower, but the first one to wear its supporting structure on the outside -- a diamond-patterned exoskeleton that still turns heads. When I drove New York architecture critic Joseph Giovannini around town a couple of years ago, he had a "Wow, what's that?" reaction to it. One of its unique visual effects is how its corners are not right angles, but zigzags formed by the joining of the diamond latticework.

The architects were Curtis & Davis (1946-1978), a New Orleans firm with an international practice and offices in New York, Los Angeles, London and Berlin. They were modernists who took a fresh approach with each job, from the largest hospital in Europe (in Berlin) to the largest enclosed stadium, the Louisiana Superdome. Nathaniel Curtis was the design partner, striving for simplicity and functionality; Arthur Davis was the traveling partner, coordinating projects among the various offices.

In the early 1960s, Curtis & Davis was designing office buildings for IBM in Mobile, Trenton, Shreveport and Pittsburgh. The first three cities got simple glass and steel boxes, one to three stories tall. But the Pittsburgh building would be a stunner, and an engineering triumph.

"Chief reason for the building's fame is its virtually unprecedented structure," wrote Interiors magazine in a 1967 feature on Curtis & Davis' work. "The building is supported by a central core and its four lattice-covered exterior truss walls, each of which has only two points of support. The system is particularly acclaimed for its efficient use of steel (five different types are combined) and the enormous benefits for the interior spaces." The column-free interior made it an early model of open-space planning.

Structurally, the IBM/Steelworkers Building was the forerunner of all tall buildings with concrete cores and load-bearing, external frames, including New York's World Trade Center. In fact, its Twin Towers and the IBM/Steelworkers Building were engineered by John Skilling and Leslie Robertson, then with the Seattle firm now known as Skilling, Ward, Magnusson and Barkshire.

The five different steels engineers used in the skeleton represented four strength levels, including a super-strong steel developed by U.S. Steel Corp. and used for the first time in a major construction project. To show off the strongest beams, they were painted red and blue as the building rose.

On Oct. 2, 1962, when nine of its 13 stories were complete, it was time to remove the wooden supports and see if the building would stand on its A-framed pylons.

"It was a sight to buckle the knees of strong men and make stress analysts tremble under the strain," The Pittsburgh Press reported. But when workmen knocked out the props, "the thing just stood there."

It was a great day for Renaissance I.

Patricia Lowry is Post-Gazette architecture critic. Her e-mail address is plowry@post-gazette.com.

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