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Design unveiled for African-American Cultural Center

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

The African American Cultural Center will set sail at Liberty Avenue and 10th Street, animating the Penn-Liberty historic district with a transparent, modern building that takes inspiration from the Swahili trading ships that carried the culture of East Africa to distant shores.

The design for the African-American Cultural Center takes its inspiration from the Swahili trading ships that carried the culture of East Africa to distant shores.

Its architect, Allison G. Williams, just won the largest and most important commission ever in Western Pennsylvania for a black female architect. She is managing principal of the San Francisco office of Ai, an architecture and interior design firm founded in Washington, D.C., in 1984.

The design of the $33 million center was unveiled yesterday in the former Associated Artists of Pittsburgh building on Liberty Avenue.

"We believe Pittsburgh more than any other city has contributed to African-American culture," said City Councilman Sala Udin, who said the building would become "a center for education, thought, debate and entertainment, informing the world about what made Pittsburgh one of the most important cities in the United States."

The architectural review committee, which winnowed the firms from a field of 16, "took its work very, very seriously," said its leader, former Pittsburgh Cultural Trust President Carol R. Brown. "We agreed, we disagreed sometimes and we agreed again."

The four-story building will occupy an important site, a gateway to Downtown for travelers approaching from the Strip along Liberty Avenue. Acknowledging this -- as well as its prime location around the corner from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center -- Williams has oriented the building toward the east, placing its primary entrance at 10th and Liberty.

The entrance is framed by a curved, four-story metal and glass sail that, Williams said, was not inspired by the sail-like roof of Rafael Vinoly's convention center.

Rather it was "the notion of pushing everything that's different into this environment." The sail has "power and pride, like a chest pushed out, that will mean certain things to certain people," she said.

And different it will be, in the context of the neighboring historic district.

Williams has given the 80,000-square-foot triangular building a lively, north-facing facade of opaque, transparent and translucent glass panels along Liberty Avenue, stretching from 10th to Smithfield streets.

Some of the glass panels could be screened with famed African-American photographer Teenie Harris' images, but most will provide views into and out from the center's "interior street," which parallels Liberty Avenue and leads to the activities within -- including classrooms, improvisational stages, galleries holding Harris' photographs and other works, a 379-seat theater, music cafe and the International Center for Africana Music. A rooftop terrace with sculpture leads to a "sky lobby" restaurant.

A skylight will bring light into the three-story grand staircase, flanked on one side by a stone wall that swells from 5 to 12 feet wide as it descends to the first floor.

Williams said that for her, "the rugged, toothy wall is the heart of the building."

In addition to its emphasis on natural light, the building's other green features include a sunscreen along the southern elevation on William Penn Place that will control daylight.

The plan also calls for two levels of underground parking and the possibility of selling the building's air rights to a hotel developer for a 100-room hotel.

The center could incorporate, at its western end on Liberty, the facade of one of the five remaining historic buildings that will be demolished to make way for it -- that of the former hotel, with an exaggerated classical pediment at the cornice line. It now houses the Sportshaven bar.

The center also will occupy a surface parking lot that runs from Ogle Way to Smithfield.

One important and potentially controversial element is the large 1 1/2-story panel now labeled with the word "Pittsburgh" and the name of the center. Depending on how the center's organizers choose to allocate their resources, it could be treated as an LED display, rear-screen projection or "low-tech ... a billboard [promoting center events] that gets changed twice a year," Williams said.

The $32.7 million budget includes $3.5 million in city funds, $2.5 million in county funds and $10 million from the state. Foundation, corporate and individual support would make up the rest.

Neil Barclay, the center's president and chief financial officer, said program development and fund raising will occur as the design evolves over the coming year.

If construction starts in fall 2004, the center could be open by 2006.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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