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Places: Let sign be an opening for art, not ads

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette architecture critic

Maybe it's the former art teacher in me, but I'm tempted to see the jumbo screen at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts as an electronic painting for the 21st century, one that could animate the city in a positive way.

One of the best places to view the giant electronic screen at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, which is now showing student self-portraits, is from the Ninth Street Bridge. (Doreena Balestreire, Post-Gazette)

But can Pittsburgh allow it without opening the door to a riverfront crowded with galloping Marlboro men and screaming Oven Mitts?

CAPA's Panasonic Astrovision screen is a whopper for sure, 30 feet high and 21 feet wide, and in a prominent place, attached to the river side of the northwest corner of the school's new building, which opened this month. The $2.7 million screen has been granted a three-month trial run to show student artwork while the Zoning Board of Adjustment reviews it. The building's architect, Albert Filoni, who had a go-ahead from the planning department and planning commission, has said he didn't know he also needed a zoning variance -- hence the unusual, post-installation review.

The issue "all boils down to semantics in the regulation of signs," said city planner Patrick Hassett, one of four panelists in a discussion sparked by the screen and sponsored by the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Riverlife Task Force last week.

In the city's zoning code, "works of art or physical constructs that do not promote product, service or activity" are permitted because they're not considered signs.

But the CAPA screen defies definition. Is it a sign, is it a work of art or does it merely reproduce pre-existing works of art?

It could be all three, and there's the rub.

The screen is now showcasing student self-portraits produced last year. But in the future, it might also show photographs or animated or live-action films as well as images of dancers, actors and musicians. As students learn to program it, it could show work produced specifically for the screen. Finally, it could promote events at the school's two theaters.

It would not, and was never intended to, have a commercial use.

These jumbo screens, now reserved mostly for advertising and stadium use, are only very occasionally programmed for artistic expression. In Times Square, the Panasonic Astrovision screen has shown videos by Thomas Struth and William Wegman, but the aesthetic application of this medium is wide open for exploration.

There is some precedent here for the screen, in the Robert Wilson/Richard Gluckman triangle of light that rotates on a rectangular screen facing the riverfront, initiated by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Two years ago, when that LED screen was launched atop the former Horne's building, the Trust was promoting Pittsburgh as the "city of light," especially light that moves in space and time to define the Cultural District.

While the abstract Wilson/Gluckman screen carries no text, it could be argued that it promotes, in a broad way, the work of the Cultural Trust, which recently plugged in Austrian-born artist Erwin Redl's red-hot, mesmerizing "FLOW" on the Liberty Avenue side of its wedge-shaped Wood Street Galleries building.

The Trust also has mounted its own LED screen on two sides of the new Michael Graves-designed parking garage, which will advertise Trust-sponsored performances and be available for programming by artists.

But at last week's panel discussion, Wood Street Galleries curator Murray Horne spoke against the CAPA screen, arguing that it detracts from the architecture, which "is so much more interesting than the LED board."

Certainly this visually active building needs no help from an animated screen. But the screen is about something else -- reaching out to the city in a way the building on its own does not and cannot. It puts what happens on the inside of the building on the outside of the building. It tells the world that Pittsburgh is a city that values the arts and art education, so much so that it put an arts high school Downtown, right across the river from the Pirates and the Steelers.

It also does something else.

"My vision for Pittsburgh is to make it look like the lights are on and somebody's home," said panelist Bill Kolano, who heads the visual marketing firm Kolano Design.

We know who we are, but nationally Pittsburgh is still searching for its post-steel identity at a time when the American landscape is increasingly homogenized.

"The challenge for the city," Kolano said, "is how can it brand itself so Pittsburgh looks distinctively different?"

Signs are a big part of that image, as Pittsburgh well knows; its zoning code has 23 pages of ways to regulate them.

But while we're regulating, let's also think creatively. What might the city look like if we encouraged the aesthetic use of electronic screens along riverfronts that once held mills flaming into the night sky?

"Much of the vibrancy of a city comes from light and signage," architect Rob Pfaffmann told the panel, reminding them of Robert Venturi's vanguard analysis of Las Vegas signs.

New York rejected it, but Venturi's 1990s concept for the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, a building with an electronic facade that could change in an instant, will happen someday, somewhere.

For CAPA, meanwhile, perhaps the solution lies in a narrower use of its screen than what the school is seeking.

But, as I said, I'm a former art teacher, not a former lawyer. Maybe the zoning board and school district attorneys can put their big brains together and figure out a way to allow it without opening the barn door to Joe Camel.

Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. She can be reached at or 412-263-1590.

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