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Children's Museum takes shine to 'night light' design in competition

Something to build on

Tuesday, December 12, 2000

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

The good thing about architectural design competitions is that they generate a lot of ideas, energy and excitement. The bad thing is that, after spending a big chunk of change staging the competition, the sponsor usually feels obligated to build one of them.

In Koning Eizenberg Architects' winning design, the two historic buildings are linked by a luminous, translucent structure with folded walls resembling a Noguchi lamp. It's symbolic of a night light, representing children's advocacy and care.

When I first saw the models for the Pittsburgh Children's Museum competition to design an expanded museum and campus a few weeks ago, my immediate reaction was that none is appropriate.

Most of the entries seemed either too institutional, too whimsical, too edgy and/or too cavalier in their treatment of the historical structures they were asked to link. In a few days, it was easy and convenient to reduce them to a shorthand identity. In my head, they became the blob, the bridge, the strangler, the airplane hangar, the Noguchi lamp and the tumbling blocks.

But on deeper examination, each of this motley crew also had one or more things to recommend it, from road design to water sculptures to rooftop gardens.

The winner -- the Noguchi lamp -- captured the jury members' hearts with its "night light" symbolism, representing advocacy for and care of children, and won their minds with its simplicity, clarity and well-thought-out program.

It also seems to have triumphed partly by default: It had the fewest negatives.

To be fair, a lot of this has to do with what the firms were asked to achieve.

The design has to preserve the historic nature of the two buildings, the neoclassical Pittsburgh Children's Museum and art moderne Buhl Planetarium, while linking them with new architecture that is innovative, sustainable and responsive to the needs of children.

Was the museum looking for a backdrop building, one that would let the older structures shine, or a flamboyant new star? That was up to the architects, who also had to design a new Children's Park on the site of Allegheny Center's sunken plaza. While providing specific program requirements, such as hands-on "Real Stuff" and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" exhibits, the museum also made it clear it was open to new program ideas.

Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects took second place with a stand-a-lone "blob" building linked to the older buildings with minimalist bridges.

The architects also were asked to consider reopening some streets to traffic and at the same time create a safe campus for children -- even though the Children's Park would be across a likely reopened Ohio Street from the museum. The two goals, while seemingly at cross purposes, are not irreconcilable. One proposal (the blob) solved the problem by not reopening the streets, the other (the bridge) by turning the new building into a bridge that crosses Ohio Street. A third (the airplane hangar) had the most sensible idea, creating a narrow street (with incised, on-street parking) and a traffic-slowing roundabout at the museum entrance.

While the winner is by far the best of the bunch, it's far from perfect. It infringes too much on the Buhl Planetarium building, especially along its facade, pierced by a long steel-frame colonade with brightly colored awnings. There are other ways (banners, for one) to enliven that stern, serene facade without scarring it. And while the new addition's "night light" will be a beacon in the dark, children mostly will use the building during the day, so its symbolism largely will be lost on them.

But winning designs are almost never built as submitted, and competitions are as much about choosing a firm as a design. Think of it as an extended interview process.

"We're going to take elements from all of [Koning Eizenberg's proposal] and fashion it into something that works for everyone," Children's Museum director Jane Werner said yesterday.

Werner and her team clearly are comfortable with Julie Eizenberg and Hank Koning, the wife-and-husband principals of Koning Eizenberg Architecture of Santa Monica, Calif.

Natives of Australia, the pair came to the United States for graduate school at UCLA and stayed, and today both are licensed architects in California and Australia.

Their 15-member firm, founded in 1981, is known for innovative solutions for everyday buildings, including schools, houses and workplaces -- almost all in and around Santa Monica.

Smith-Miller Hawkinson's glass-walled addition wraps around the existing Children's Museum and reserves the Buhl for future expansion.

For the Ken Edwards Center for Community Services in Santa Monica, for example, the architects designed not one large, monolithic building but three distinct yet related smaller structures, creating the feel of an approachable modernist village.

Their winning design for the Children's Museum creates a new front door and entrance hall along a reopened West Ohio Street, while maximizing use of the historic structures.

While the "night light" is the building's symbol, "Roots and Wings" is its theme, inspired by a Chinese proverb that instructs parents to give their children those two things. The expanded museum's roots are in the older buildings, its wings in the new.

The "night light" structure would be the museum's new entry, housing 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 -- the former Allegheny Post Office.

The jury was not taken with the firm's design for the park, in which a lawn slopes down to a pond, with nearby rocks and wild indigenous plantings. The idea of evoking a rural landscape in the park, as several firms suggested, is all wrong. It's an urban space and should be celebrated as such.

Neither the competition brief nor any of the entries saw the need to preserve and adapt the existing plaza, which should be given full consideration for the quality of its period design and its relationship to the whole of Allegheny Center.

The plaza was itself the product of an architectural competition in 1964, one that drew 305 entries, including 75 from outside the country. The winners were William Breger, who had worked with Walter Gropius and was then chairman of the architecture department at Pratt Institute, and two of his students, James Terjesen and Warren Winter. The unanimous jury, led by Hideo Sasaki, then head of Harvard's landscape architecture department, hailed the design for its simplicity and saw it as a place where people would gather for leisure or social functions.

But as a public space, the concrete plaza with its shadow-inducing cantilevered overlooks and sunken fountain was never very welcoming, and later efforts to soften it by adding evergreen trees in planters didn't help. Filling those pots with mounds of annuals would, along with enhancing the plaza's water element -- the fountain that to this day children love to run through and that originally also was to have been a pond.

Other ways to make the plaza more amenable to children and adults, without sacrificing its integrity, should be explored. It's a central feature of the mature modern landscape of Allegheny Center, and if we summarily destroy it, we'll be making the same mistake of an earlier generation, when it saw no value in the 18th-century landscape and 19th-century buildings of Allegheny City.

With sensitivity and creativity, all of this -- remaking the plaza, reopening the roads while maintaining a pedestrian-friendly environment, blending new architecture and old -- can be achieved. The museum deserves support for attempting such an ambitious project, one that not only will create a special place for children, but also better integrate the Allegheny Center island with the neighborhoods.

For Werner, the next step is negotiating a contract with the architects, followed by a February charrette on exhibit content and design. Fred Rogers, whose ongoing relationship with the museum is a huge plus, is expected to launch it with an inspirational talk. Once costs are determined, a capital campaign will be launched. If all goes well, the new facility could be completed by February 2003.

Placing second in the competition was Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam's computer-designed blob, my initial favorite because it kept a respectful distance from the historic buildings -- linking them only with spare, gestural pedestrian bridges -- and introduced a bold new landmark, an instant icon. But a blob has more to do with what's going on in architecture at the moment than it does with children, and the text that accompanied the entry did not adequately flesh out the program. Further, the Atlanta architects blew the whole $10 million budget on the blob and did not address how the two historic buildings would be used.

Reiser and Umemoto came in third in the design competition with a building that bridges Ohio Street and connects to an underground garage below a new children's park.

In third place came the bridge, by Reiser + Umemoto of New York, who, as others before them have done, took inspiration from Pittsburgh as a city of bridges. They envisioned the addition as a long light-filled steel and glass bridge spanning Ohio Street. Inside, traditional floorplates were scrubbed in favor of an undulating interior with floors and walkways that ripple like ribbons, establishing visual and physical connectivity and fluid spaces.

Of the six proposals, the bridge pushes the envelope in the most interesting and unexpected way, turning a road into a building. The seamless, fluctuating interior is very much of the moment but not especially relevant to a children's museum. The bridge links the two historic buildings physically but divides them visually. In short, a provocative building that would be devastating -- even menacing -- on the landscape.

Damianos and Anthony/Rothschild Architects strove to create both intimate and grand spaces inside a new structure that links the historic buildings and provides a new entrance under a small dome.

The airplane hangar is more compatible, a well-behaved building designed to "heighten a child's experience of the relationship between buildings and nature" with a garden roof and places for children to garden in the "back yard." But this proposal, designed by Damianos + Anthony with Rothschild Architects, all of Pittsburgh, and almost a full page of consultants, over-solves the problem with a program of disparate little elements that don't add up to anything big. Some of them, like the corner "Rainbow Tower" -- a large, elongated sort of Rubik's Cube topped by a tree -- are just silly and not in a whimsical way.

Inspired by children's blocks, the cube is the basic building block in this design for a new addition by Stamberg Aferiat Architecture.

Between the two historic buildings, Stamberg Aferiat Architecture of New York inserted a series of brightly colored tumbling blocks, faced in metal panels, that look as if they fell from the sky. Parts of blocks also burst through the Buhl facade as skylights (so much for respecting the historic buildings). While the new architecture certainly distinguishes itself from the old, it does so in an obvious and unsophisticated way, by seizing upon the most ubiquitous children's toy. And while its initial attention-getting factor is high, the novelty soon would wear off.

The strangler, by Smith-Miller Hawkinson of New York, wraps the existing museum building in a glass box; its stepped floors and ramps spiral down and around the older building, maintaining visual contact with it. While it does touch the older building "lightly and gently," as its entry claims, that good intention is all but lost in its rigid, institutional demeanor and overwhelming form. It suffocates the older building like a giant corporate cobra.

Models and plans of all of the entries will be on view at the Heinz Architectural Center from Jan. 10 to Feb. 2.

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