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California firm wins Children's Museum competition

Wednesday, December 06, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

A California architecture and planning firm has won the competition to design the Pittsburgh Children's Museum expansion with a new structure that links two historic buildings with an illuminated, translucent addition symbolic of that reassuring staple of children's bedrooms, the night light.

The winning design, by Koning Eizenberg Architecture of Santa Monica, creates a new front door and entrance hall for the museum along a reopened East Ohio Street. It was the unanimous choice of the eight-member jury.

The 15-member firm, founded in 1981 by Julie Eizenberg and Hank Koning, is known for imaginative solutions for everyday buildings, including schools, houses and workplaces. Most of its commissions have been in and around Santa Monica, but Koning Eizenberg enjoys a wider reputation because it has been written up frequently in national trade publications.

"The team is thrilled, and honored to be working with, and for, kids," Eizenberg said. "Some projects you feel an affinity for, and this is one where we felt that from the start."

No timetable for starting or completing the project has been set.

The children's museum launched the competition three months ago to spark a design for a $10 million, energy-efficient "green" building that would connect the existing museum building -- the neoclassical former Allegheny Post Office -- and the art moderne Buhl Planetarium building.

"We look forward to working with you," an enthusiastic Mayor Tom Murphy told museum staff at a press conference late yesterday afternoon.

The city owns the Buhl building, which has been vacant since 1991. "You can have it for $1," Murphy said. "You can have it tomorrow."

The city also is studying the possibility of reopening Ohio Street and part of Federal Street through Allegheny Center.

Juror Mabel O. Wilson, a Berkeley, Calif., architect, called the winning design "a thoughtful and modest proposal" that "captures the existing ethos of the institution -- that of small, intimate spaces in a new, captivating design."

The winner isn't as attention-getting as some of the other five entries, which included a computer-designed "blob" building and one that linked the historic buildings with giant, tumbling blocks.

But the Koning Eisenberg scheme has its own striking and symbolic element in the large volume with folded, translucent walls reminiscent of an Isamu Noguchi rice paper lamp.

"It is a 'night light' symbol for children's advocacy and care," the architects wrote in their entry.

They called their design "Roots and Wings," inspired by a Chinese proverb that instructs parents to give their children those two things.

"It speaks not only to old and new, but past and future, safety and risk all in the frame of reference of our responsibility to children," they wrote.

"The architects understood who we were. They got it," said museum director and jury member Jane Werner.

The "night light" structure would be the new entry to the museum, and house classrooms on its two upper floors. The older structures would contain classrooms, offices and exhibit space. The architects also provided a location for a potential University of Pittsburgh model preschool, to be housed in a new one-story structure west of the existing Children's Museum building.

"It's a little bit edgy, but restrained," juror Joseph Rosa, curator of the Heinz Architectural Center, said of the design. "We needed something clean, not cluttered," so as not to overpower the historic structures.

Still, the "night light" intrudes quite a bit into the Buhl building, and the latter's severe but elegant facade is made more welcoming -- but also is dumbed down and marred -- by the addition of a long, steel-framed "veranda" and awning.

"How much can we really penetrate the existing building? That's clearly an issue," said competition adviser Rebecca Flora, director of the Green Building Alliance. "I suspect there are going to be a lot of changes."

The jury also selected two runners-up, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects of Atlanta, which took second place, and Reiser + Umemoto of New York, which took third.



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