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Places: On the North Shore, let's showcase new ideas, not nostalgia

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette architecture critic

Does Pittsburgh need an architectural design competition to get distinctive buildings on the North Shore? East End developer Ward Olander thinks so and wants to put up $50,000 to help fund it.

Continental Real Estate Companies, which is developing the 25 acres between Heinz Field and PNC Park, staged a competition of sorts, but not with the international scope and public process Olander envisions.

Online Map:
Plans for the North Shore



A few months ago, Continental invited six Pittsburgh-based firms to submit ideas for what the North Shore buildings should look like. For the design of the first office building, it chose Strada, a young firm (formed in 2000) whose principals, through their long associations with other firms, have proven themselves capable of work that is both contextual and progressive.

But what is the context for the North Shore? It's a wide-open canvas bookended by the stadium and ballpark, and separated enough by topography (Monument Hill) and the North Shore Expressway that the historic North Side neighborhood isn't the only relevant context.

Yet the vision for the North Shore, as set forth by the developer, is that in 10 years it will "look like it has been there for 80 years," as described in May by Continental chairman Frank Kass.

At the Nov. 19 planning commission meeting, we learned more about what the new North Shore might look like when Mike Hudec, Continental's director of development, said buildings along the riverfront would be "grandly scaled, with towers, arches and arcades."

Continental is taking inspiration from PNC Park, which took inspiration from the nearby sandstone bridge piers and from Downtown civic buildings like the Allegheny County Courthouse.

It also seems to be aiming to create what the curators of a late 1990s exhibit on Disney architecture called "the architecture of reassurance" -- comfort buildings that recall an earlier, more innocent age.

While Continental's in-house design team is setting the vision for the development, outside architects will design the buildings, which will be reviewed by the city's design review committee and the planning commission. The challenge will be getting buildings that meet Continental's vision and communicate that Pittsburgh, at the dawn of the 21st century, is interested in new ideas.

Whatever is built along the riverfront should be held to the highest design standards and pushed to be not nostalgic, but ambitious and daring. The Alcoa Corporate Center, the new convention center and the planned Carnegie Science Center expansion have raised the bar for the Pittsburgh riverfront.

Olander makes a generous offer, but it comes too late to be considered seriously. And the North Shore presents a tremendous opportunity for Pittsburgh architects to show what they can do by filling in between the Vinoly and Nouvel buildings.

Some speakers at the last planning commission meeting expressed concern that Continental is not building the canal water feature between the esplanade and North Shore Drive that was part of EDAW's master plan for the park. The canal doesn't appear in Continental's plan because it isn't the developer's responsibility. The Sports & Exhibition Authority is raising money to design and build the canal, a reflecting pool that will lead to the water steps.

"We feel very strongly about this park. It's near and dear to our heart," SEA director Steve Leeper said yesterday.

The public hearing on Continental's plan continues before the planning commission today in the John P. Robin Civic Building at 100 Ross St., Downtown. It's the fifth item on an agenda that begins at 2 p.m.

Context, part two

On Sunday, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown will receive the National Building Museum's Vincent J. Scully Prize, recognizing their contributions to architectural scholarship over four decades.

At the award ceremony, the couple will present a lecture titled "Context in Context," which will explore the uses and misuses of context in today's architecture. Venturi and Scott Brown will argue for an inclusive concept of context, "accommodating unity and disunity, harmony and dissonance."

Their retrospective exhibit, "Out of the Ordinary," continues at Carnegie Museum of Art through Feb. 2.

Bubbliscious? Not.

The law of unintended consequences is ruling in Shadyside, where Rolliers hardware store, one of Walnut Street's few remaining necessities-of-life businesses, will close in February after 75 years on the street -- a victim of the success not only of East Liberty's Home Depot, but also of Lowe's, Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond at the more distant Waterworks or Waterfront developments. The city didn't mean to put Rolliers out of business when it wooed and won Home Depot, but that is cold comfort to Rolliers' loyal customers, who will miss the small-town ambience and how-to expertise of the staff. Too bad there weren't more of us.

At least we can lick our wounds at Whole Foods Market, an inspired reuse of a former warehouse building. The city, to its credit, was enormously supportive of the deal put together by developers Steve Mosites and Molly Blazier to assemble properties and attract the nation's largest natural foods grocer.

But surely the city didn't set out to uglify Shadyside's Fifth Avenue when, as part of the Whole Foods deal, it agreed to buy a private indoor tennis facility and erect a giant, inflated bubble over the public tennis courts in Mellon Park.

There must be a better place for a tennis bubble than across the street from the historic landscape of upper Mellon Park, where the privately financed restoration and expansion of the perimeter fence recently was completed -- first phase of the park's restoration and interpretation as the landscape and gardens of the R.B. Mellon estate.

The bubble floated through the art commission, after commission member and landscape architect Suzanne Meyer gamely tried to mitigate its presence by consulting on the buffering landscape, which adds more trees. Only commission member and sculptor Brett Day voted against it, denouncing the bubble as a "great, gray carbuncle."

The only comfort here is that this boil will be lanced every spring, when it comes down for open-air play in the warm months.

E-mail it

Regarding last Friday's story on the upcoming public input sessions for the master plan of Point State Park, Dick Kraft of Bethel Park writes: "In this age of the computer, one would think Pressley Associates would accept comments on changes to Point State Park via e-mail.

"The public hearings being held in Downtown Pittsburgh during cold winter days and the Christmas preparation rush will keep many, me included, from making verbal comments or suggestions. E-mail writers would not be expected to receive return mail, just to be "heard.' "

Good idea. Comments on the park's design features and programming can be sent to Lea Ann Gerkin, Allegheny Conference on Community Development, at lgerkin@accdpel.org.

And while advance registration gives planners an idea of how many people to expect, unregistered walk-ins also are welcome at the public input sessions, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Friday on the 31st floor of the Regional Enterprise Tower (the former Alcoa Building), 425 Sixth Ave., Downtown. To register to attend one or more of the sessions, send Gerkin an e-mail or a fax (412-281-1896).

Look, Ma! A two-headed curator!

Congratulations to Heinz Architectural Center associate curator Tracy Myers, who next month becomes co-curator with Raymund Ryan.

Myers has guided the center through two long lapses without a head curator, following the departures of Dennis McFadden and Joseph Rosa. She has organized several major exhibits and symposia here and has overseen the paring down and installation of the Venturi Scott Brown Associates show. Myers, who enjoys great popularity among architects here, marries a keen intelligence with a level-headed, down-to-earth sensibility and a much-appreciated sense of humor.

She has a master's in art history from Hunter College of The City University of New York and is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at the University of Delaware. She has served as adjunct lecturer at both institutions.

Ryan, who has a master's in architecture from Yale University and was a practicing architect from 1981 to 1990, lives in Dublin and served as commissioner for Ireland's first participation in the Venice Architectural Biennale in 2000. He is a contributing editor for Blueprint (London), a contributor to The Architectural Review (London), and former editorial board member of LA Architect (Los Angeles).

In addition, he has published articles in many architecture and design mags and is co-author of "Building Tate Modern" (Tate Publishing, 2000) and "Cool Construction" (Thames & Hudson, 2001).


All this Ph.D. talk reminds me: Architectural historian and critic Charles Rosenblum is getting his from the University of Virginia, not from his undergraduate school, Yale University, as I wrote recently in a review of "Henry Hornbostel: An Architect's Master Touch."

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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