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Places: Finding beauty and meaning in a post-industrial landscape

Monday, February 26, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette architecture critic

On a former steel mill site in McKeesport, wee mounds of brilliant green moss form an undulating carpet within the old soaking pits, surrounded on three sides by a stand of staghorn sumacs, their blood-red seed heads perching on the branches like fat male cardinals.

"This could be a garden," said Peter Latz, the German landscape architect who has transformed industrial sites in Europe and now has brought seven Harvard University students here to work on sites in the Mon Valley.

In fact, these beds of moss and their sentinel sumacs already form a garden of sorts, a found garden, planned and planted by nature and rarely seen by man.

As Pittsburgh's steel mills were shut down, fenced in and left to die, many such gardens grew with wild abandon. But like the decaying buildings they flourished in and around, the found gardens were snuffed out in time, replaced with asphalt or new buildings and landscapes deemed more appropriate to the industrial or high-tech parks that were supplanting them.

In Germany, they took a different approach.

The Emscher River valley, Europe's industrial heartland, is a region thick with the remnants of 19th-century steel mills and collieries. In 1988, the government of North Rhine Westphalia, supported by 17 local governments, decided the monuments of industry should be preserved as museum pieces and reborn as centers of cultural activities. Woven among them today are new urban communities, new technology centers and artful, interactive landscapes designed to reclaim the ravaged land and water.

Monumental in scale and dramatically illuminated, old mill structures like Oberhausen's Gasometer are the reinvigorated veterans amid new commercial buildings, housing, social and sports facilities.

The McKeesport mill had two gasometers, great cylindrical tanks for storing gas, both now demolished. In Oberhausen, the 12-story gasometer, once slated for demolition, is a theater and exhibit hall, shot through with a glass-walled elevator that takes visitors to panoramic, rooftop views of the valley.

The mechanism for preservation and renewal was a series of 200 national and international design competitions that led to an International Building Exhibition in 1999 of 100 built projects.

Latz won the competition to design part of the Emscher Landscape Park, transforming a former iron and steel works at Duisburg into a 500-acre public park with hiking trails, promenades, climbing walls, gardens and a water park based on the ecological regeneration of the old Emscher Canal system. The steelworks has been preserved as an active museum.

"A fascinating vegetation has developed on the waste material of industrial processes," Latz said at a recent slide lecture at Chatham College. "Already in February, a dazzling yellow covers the railway areas, and lichens and mosses grow on the stones of the slag heaps."

Along with designed portions, some accessible parts of the Duisburg site have been left to evolve on their own and return to nature, while other parts are off-limits because they are too polluted.

Demolition, detoxification and blanket coverage of the land with new topsoil has been the approach to brownfields in Homestead, South Side and Hazelwood. But at Regional Industrial Development Corp. sites in Duquesne, McKeesport and East Pittsburgh, the sturdiest of the mill buildings have been renovated and house other businesses -- or await renovation.

Brooks Robinson Jr., director of marketing for the RIDC's Mon Valley sites, gave the Harvard students tours of all three sites.

"Maybe there's a design done that's creative and unique enough that we would implement or use parts of," he said. "I would love to have somebody come up with a wild plan that incorporated the water, the river's edge and recreation."

"We will ask questions and present alternatives that are maybe a little outside the box of what has been presented before," said student Matt Tucker, over a hearty Eat'n Park brunch after a windy Sunday morning on the mill site.

"You're going to have to start small, with small interventions," said student Michael Gammill.

In addition to the site surveys, they are preparing for their project by reading about life in the mills, talking to Steel Industry Heritage Corp. staffers, looking at the 1900 plat maps of the mill and town and examining current census data.

"Then you start to think of strategies for McKeesport -- a city built out for 40,000 to 50,000 people but today has the population of half that," said Latz.

He and the Harvard students are collaborating on the Mon Valley projects with Carnegie Mellon architecture, design and art students led by German architect and town planner Thomas Spiegelhalter. He, too, won Emscher Park competitions.

In the Mon Valley, his students have been mapping the mill sites and generating ideas for sustainable, artistic and experimental redevelopment projects. Latz and Spiegelhalter also have brought University of Pennsylvania students here to participate in the collaboration. And since the fall of 1999, David Lewis' CMU students have been working on the Carrie Furnace site.

Results of the students' work will be exhibited at CMU in the fall.

Meanwhile, the professionals -- the Pittsburgh architecture firm MacLachlan, Cornelius and Filoni -- are preparing a land use feasibility study for the Carrie site, the brownfield adjacent to it as well as residential and light industrial sites in Braddock and North Braddock -- 250 acres in all.

Architect Dick Schmitz, who's heading the MCF team, traveled to Emscher Park in April 1999 with Augie Carlino and Ted Muller, president and chair of the Steel Industry Heritage Corp.; all three hope to develop the Carrie Furnace site on the German model.

"The highlight was being able to climb up and around the blast furnace," Schmitz said. "They light it at night with colored lights, neon lights, floodlights, and it just becomes a beacon from all areas. And that's our vision for Carrie Furnace."

Although the 35-acre Carrie Furnace site is owned by Park Corp., plans call for the county Redevelopment Authority to purchase and hold it until -- and if -- it becomes a national historic site.

In Pittsburgh, a few isolated mill structures have been saved in place -- like the Gantry crane and stacks at Homestead's Waterfront development -- but are so out of context they have lost virtually all meaning. In Germany, "they have a sympathy toward what exists in the community that allows the community to remain consistent with its identity," Carlino said.

Embracing the past and wedding it to the future, they are reaping the rewards with renewed pride and an unexpected byproduct -- increased tourism.

Patricia Lowry is the Post-Gazette architecture critic. Her e-mail address is

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