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Places: Brave new city; Under-35 set creates designs for orphaned spaces

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette architecture critic

What a different place Pittsburgh would be if its young designers had their way.

Marc Ford and Carmen Gong's design for the Bigelow Boulevard area extends Cliffside Park down from the Hill District with an overlook atop the boulevard.

Cemeteries would be built in vacant lots, angelic sculptures would float under bridges and Bigelow Boulevard would be transformed into "a midair utopia," with parks and a promenade.

Earlier this year, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation invited architects, artists and other designers under the age of 35 to imagine how Pittsburgh's neglected, unplanned or forgotten places could be turned to an advantage. Think of it as a chance for designers untainted by experience-induced negativism to have a go at reinventing the city. For the rest of us, it's an opportunity to be awakened to the wonder and potential of the city that surrounds us. In just two years, the competition, which last year asked for the redesign of public spaces and squares, has become one of PHLF's most visible and important projects.

The results of the "Orphaned Spaces in the Public Realm" competition are on view through May 10 in the stone-walled, basement gallery of the Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, North Side, where the competition's prize-winners were announced yesterday. PHLF had pledged $10,000 in award money, $2,000 more than last year, to be distributed any way the jurors wished. The possibility of a $10,000 prize was, apparently, a strong incentive to involvement, attracting 19 entries (a dozen more than in 2001).

Many of the participants are architects; why so few artists joined the game is both a mystery and a disappointment.

 
 
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And the winners of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation are ...

   
 

There seems to be no shortage of orphaned spaces, which should surprise no one. What does come as a pleasant surprise is the extent to which some designers or teams broadened the definition beyond its original scope to include remaking entire streets and parks. And several proposals address the isolation born out of Pittsburgh's topography by connecting neighborhoods in daring, innovative ways.

That's the approach Marc Ford and Carmen Gong took with Bigelow Boulevard, which they rightly regard as a "sequence of forgotten space and narrowly missed opportunities ... the boulevard is depressing except at high speed, depopulated and featureless."

And full of potential, with its cliffside setting and spectacular views.

The street was planned at the turn of the century by public works director Edward Bigelow as a scenic route connecting Downtown to the new Schenley Park. Under Mayor Edward Babcock, who served from 1918 to 1922, the boulevard was widened and straightened, and by 1921 carried more traffic than any other Pittsburgh artery, according to a street plan study released that year. Although other roads now carry higher traffic volumes, Bigelow still is designed primarily for the rapid movement of cars and buses.

Ford and Gong would slow the traffic and turn the boulevard into an amenity, not only for the neighborhoods it passes through but for visitors who would come "to walk, to drive, to picnic, to visit a store." At intervals along the boulevard, they locate paths, promenades, recreational facilities, gardens, squares, new buildings, sculpture and parking, all connecting neighborhoods and taking advantage of views.

At Frank Curto Park, for example, they create a pavilion overlooking a small lake formed by water runoff from the hillside above. New paths would link the park to Bedford Avenue above and the Strip District below.

In these penny-pinching, road-raging times, the Ford-Gong plan will seem overly ambitious and impractical, but here's hoping it provokes new thinking about the boulevard's long-term evolution.

More connections: Iris Gehrke and Kenneth Stehle treat the three highway underpasses between the North Shore and the North Side as a linear park, linking them with canted, curvilinear paths and activating them with a climbing wall, skateboarding area, pool and waterfall -- decidedly more youth-oriented and animated than UDA Architects' pragmatic plan for the same site.

First-place winners Hee Park and Daeun Jeong designed a series of elevated walkways linking the Bluff with the Monongahela riverfront. Each of these high-tech catwalks, which stretch from the Boulevard of the Allies to the Eliza Furnace Trail, would be lined with photovoltaic panels connected to the utility grid. Walking them should be no more intimidating than conquering the 85-foot-high slide at Sandcastle, but this is not an adventure for the faint of heart. Think of them as the conservation-minded, 21st-century equivalent of Pittsburgh's city steps and inclines.

Another entry in what we might call the grands projets category also addresses the Boulevard of the Allies -- or rather, the hillside below it.

Ignacia Filippini, Emily Gustavsen, Cortland Shopper, Ayaka Uchida and Roger Wei would turn the cliff beneath the newly rebuilt Boulevard of the Allies into a screen for projected images. The top half of the cliff would be draped with a fine, sandblasted aluminum mesh that would retain rocks and debris and "beautify the wall." At night, the mile-long screen would become another kind of screen -- backdrop for a moving sequence of projected text and images, visible from the Parkway East and nearby bridges, parks, trails and overlooks. The goal is to "promote hope through understanding -- the understanding of what Pittsburgh was, what it is, and where it is headed." This would be accomplished, in the designers' optimistic view, by juxtaposing images of the city with quotations about it.

It's a provocative idea, albeit one that could too easily become a billboard, if the project were subsidized with advertising or, as the designers suggest, used to promote events. Even without advertising, it might seem like a billboard in a city already saturated with them. But the boldness of the idea is admirable, as is its effort to merge history and landscape in a way that stimulates discussion about the future.

There is much, much more to this exhibit. Check it out.


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

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