Carnegie architecture exhibit shows what our area can aspire to
Every so often, anyone who writes reviews is tempted to use the “run … don't walk” lead-in for a column, advising readers that there is a “must see” show in town.
Well, here's where I cash in my chips on that cliché and advise anyone who cares about the future of the Pittsburgh region to get out to the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art and see the exhibition called “White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes.”
The show, which opened recently, is ostensibly about new ideas in designs for art museums. As such, it might easily be overlooked if you're not too concerned about museum design.
But its importance for Pittsburghers goes — totally unexpectedly — far, far beyond that. This is a show that will open your eyes and challenge your imagination, leading you to new ways of thinking about things we might do for our region's future.
By way of background, “white cube” refers to the traditional modern minimalist space in which most art is displayed these days. “Green maze” refers to six museums from around the world that are highlighted in the show because they use a mix of outdoor spaces and pavilions, merging architecture and landscape to create new spaces and new ways to view art.
All that is interesting in itself. But consider these elements of the show:
• One featured project is the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle — a park on the site of a former oil terminal that transcends figuratively and crosses-over literally a mainline railroad and a four-lane highway as a way to connect the city to its waterfront.
• Another is the transformation of an abandoned copper refinery in Japan to create an art park and museum spaces using material from old refinery structures and preserving giant smokestacks as landmarks.
• A third is a 32-acre former NATO missile base in Germany where, among other things, old bunkers have been turned into art venues and studios for working artists.
Do the challenges presented by these kinds of locations sound at all familiar to you?
We currently have nearly identical challenges all over our region — the Buncher property up for redevelopment in the Strip; a similarly-sized trove of vacant riverside land in Hazelwood; the critical, vacant land in the Lower Hill where the Civic Arena used to be; the challenge presented by the Crosstown Expressway, which isolates the Lower Hill from Downtown; the effort to preserve the historic Carrie Furnaces, which once supplied iron for the storied mills in Homestead; and any number of places and towns up and down our river valleys that are characterized by post-industrial brownfield landscapes and the formidable barrier to the rivers created by highways and rails. All these are regional problems that will, sooner or later, demand creative solutions.
And the path to solutions for all of these problems can be informed by a careful, intensive viewing of the six projects on display at the Carnegie. They show how world-class design talent and imaginative and risk-taking civic leaders can combine architecture and landscape to permanently enhance their cities.
The fact that these landscapes and buildings are dedicated to art does not necessarily limit for us the usefulness of them as inspiration for our own development needs. The way landscape and architecture can intertwine is the lesson we need to internalize here in Pittsburgh.
Can we measure up? Go to the Carnegie and dream! The six sites chosen for this unique show involve, for the most part, architects and landscape architects you've never heard of working in places you've never been. Aside from Seattle, there is an urban park near Belo Horizonte, Brazil; a botanical garden transformed into an art garden with imaginative architectural interventions near Culiacan, Mexico; a resurrected villa in Grottaferrata, Italy; as well as the German site near Neuss and the Japanese sites on a group of small islands.
These sites were selected by Raymund Ryan, one of the curators at the Heinz Architectural Center, and photographed by the Dutch architectural photographer, Iwan Baan. The show consists of Baan's photographs, plus numerous models, plans, conceptual drawings, sketches and the like, all assembled by Ryan, and videos. It's an engaging mix.
Special attention should be paid to Baan's photographs. Architectural photography for several decades has emphasized either abstract shapes or sterile images of buildings in brightly lit detailed perfection. Not so Baan. His buildings are almost always populated and show architecture in use — often by children. It's a new trend in architectural photography, and Baan is a master of it, sometimes even capturing “decisive moments” in the manner of classic “street photographers” such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, while still simultaneously showing us the architecture and landscapes.
The show will be at the Carnegie through Jan. 13, and then will move to the Yale School of Architecture galleries in New Haven.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.