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John G. Craig Jr.: Only the best will do

Public development does not have to be ugly

Sunday, October 28, 2001

Alex Krieger, the Harvard professor and internationally recognized urban planner who led the team that produced the vision plan for Three Rivers Park, was not pleased, perfectionist that he is. The computer-produced simulations didn't do justice to the architectural possibilities, he said.

  John G. Craig Jr. is editor of the Post-Gazette ( 

What set Krieger off were representations in a promotional video. He did not think the buildings that the computer had placed in various spots along the rivers -- "what-if?" illustrations of what might be built in areas now devoid of structures -- were as good as they could have been.

Yes, he told me, they give you an idea of what might be, but there is no architecture there to stir the imagination. (Stills from the video can be found in the 24-page Three Rivers Park supplement in today's Post-Gazette.)

As a co-chairman of the Riverlife Task Force, I had worked with Krieger from the first day, a wintry morning in February last year, and well knew his passion and high standards. But as a keeper of the purse, I had other responsibilities as well:

"You are correct, Alex, they could be better, but let it go. They are representations, not reality, not architectural drawings. The money needed to remake that part of the video and get what you want is much, much greater than you imagine."

I recount this exchange to make an important point. Krieger was right and I was wrong. When it comes to development in Three Rivers Park, only the very best architecture will do.

How many times have we said, as I just had, that "what you are talking about costs too much money"? That, "yes, it may not be the best building in the world, but it is all right for this particular purpose." That, "yes, in theory you are right, but let's not lose sight of reality." Probably many more times than we care to admit.

If the Riverlife Task Force leaves us with one idea before all others, it should be that public development does not have to be ugly.

There is a great deal of subjectivity in that thought, for one man's good design is another's abomination. But a consensus has grown up over the years about what makes for good architecture. There is also a concurrent realization that fashions change in architecture as in everything else, but that good work regardless of its age will hold up well.

To illustrate the point (and reveal my prejudices), I would include among my list of great Pittsburgh public architecture the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning and the Pittsburgh Athletic Association that is across the street in Oakland; the West End Bridge over the Ohio and the 16th Street Bridge over the Allegheny; the interiors of all three Downtown stations of the Light Rail system and (from all appearances) the new Firstside station that will open next month.

Henry Hobson Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and jail get all the raves, but the City-County Building next door is an exceptionally fine piece of work as well. The Carnegie Mellon University parking garage along Forbes is another example of extra effort paying off handsomely when it comes to even the most functional structure.

Buildings One, Two and Three of Gateway Center and the art deco park that connects them is another civic adornment that holds up well almost 50 years later, something that cannot be said of everything else that was part of the so-called first Pittsburgh Renaissance. I'd say the same of what we used to know as CNG Tower on Liberty Avenue, as compared with other buildings put up in Renaissance II.

The point is well enough made. Good work is almost always immediately recognizable. When you are in its presence, it consistently generates within you a feeling of well-being. If you have had the opportunity to walk down Fort Duquesne Boulevard, you know what I mean.

The newly constituted urban space is only partly done. Connections to the new convention center above Ninth Street and west to Point State Park are still to come. There is also going to be a new public high school for the performing arts east of Ninth Street and, very likely, at least one new high-rise residential building at Seventh Street. Those structures, when combined with the eclectic collection of other buildings already there, will constitute one of Pittsburgh's great waterfront neighborhoods, Gateway Center at one end, the convention center at the other.

Re-enter Alex Krieger: It will be great only if the community does not let down its guard, does not permit work to go up anywhere on the boulevard's length that conforms to the John Craig maxim that "we did not have enough money to do any better."

This will be a real challenge, because each and every project proposed not just there but also for other important Downtown riverfront venues could also be so introduced. The threat of the second-best will be unceasing.

If we keep that in mind and we remain determined to follow the Gospel According to Krieger, 10 years from now we should be able to look around and say to ourselves, who would have dreamed we could have done anything as wonderful as this?

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