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Places: Drama is in details of N. Shore blueprint

Saturday, January 25, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette architecture critic

Strada, the Downtown architecture firm that won the commission to design Continental Real Estate Cos.' first North Shore office building, tried to answer its client's call for a building that is historically contextual, while at the same time responding to concerns that it also be contemporary.

Strada's preliminary design for the North Shore waterfront features two buildings linked by a pedestrian bridge inspired by the arches of the Allegheny River's Three Sisters bridges.

Click photo for a larger version.

While the design that won the competition seems to be too much of the former and too little of the latter, it has some distinguishing features that are either not shown or not obvious on the drawing, including a ground-floor arcade, window bays, second-floor balconies and a circular courtyard between the two buildings.

But it could lose some of those elements and more as the process moves along, as tenants define what they want and Continental determines what it is willing to pay for.

As originally planned, the building is shown to the west of the Fort Duquesne Bridge. It's two buildings, actually, united on the fifth floor by a pedestrian bridge with a design drawn from the arches of the Three Sisters bridges.

Buildings inspired by bridges constitute a sort of indigenous architecture in Pittsburgh, and why not? More than any individual building, they are what define the city. Celebrating them feels absolutely right when done right, and in this case the bridge element is largely what saves Strada's building from being Nabisco-on-the-Allegheny.

Continental asked for a connection between the two buildings and architect John Martine responded with a grandly scaled bridge, on axis with the fishing pier, that becomes a gateway to and icon for the new neighborhood.

Martine has a view of the Three Sisters from his Liberty Avenue office, but he and his colleagues also were "looking at other precedents like the Renaissance Hotel [the former Fulton Building], which was mirrored by the Bessemer Building, now gone." The pedestrian bridge "needed something else to tie it to the ground and in turn create a more exciting space between the buildings than just air space," Martine said.

But if Continental's tenant doesn't require the pedestrian bridge, it could be seen as expendable. It isn't.

As shown in the drawing, the first floor features an arcade that would provide an inviting shelter for pedestrians and perhaps outdoor dining. But it could be sacrificed to gain ground-floor retail space. That would seem to be a penny-wise, pound-foolish solution that goes against the city's desire to create a festive and welcoming environment on the North Shore.

Absent the arcade, bridge, bays and balconies, the red brick and stone (limestone or artificial stone) design is a people warehouse -- acceptable for a backstreet office building, perhaps, but too commonplace and regressive for the waterfront.

As designed, the westernmost building terminates in a sort of lighthouse feature that would overlook the proposed amphitheater and act as a beacon for the North Shore.

Depending on where the still-unidentified tenant wishes to locate, the buildings could be erected to the east of the Fort Duquesne Bridge, between it and PNC Park. If so, the image would be reversed, with the lighthouse overlooking PNC Park and the pedestrian bridge straddling the canal street that leads to the water steps.

The drawing came to light when Strada used it to announce an event at its office. The book of designs the firm produced to win the competition reveals a level of detail and a sequence of spaces worthy of the waterfront. But it appears we may have to fight for them.

Vinoly, again

Rafael Vinoly has won the competition to design an expansion of Washington, D.C.'s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts with a scheme that would give the older building the formal, monumental setting it long has lacked.

Vinoly's design establishes a circular fountain and a long reflecting pool in front of the center, with the water features flanked by two new curved glass and steel buildings. But the project is more ambitious still, as it will cover a tangle of roads that have isolated the riverfront center, built as a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy.

Funded in part by a $400 million gift from Congress, the $650 million project will be built over the next 10 years. The new buildings will house offices, rehearsal stages, educational facilities and a performing arts museum.

Vinoly's star continues to climb: The Kennedy Center expansion is one of several major commissions he has won since Pittsburgh's convention center, including cultural centers in Philadelphia, New York and Tampa.

Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. She can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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