Growth with a vision

| Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 8:54 p.m.

Pittsburgh continues to gain bragging rights where planning and architecture are concerned.

That was reinforced this month with two unrelated events. The first was a cover story in Architectural Record magazine's October issue that highlighted Pittsburgh as a prime example of “New Life for the American City” — the bootstrap reinvention of older cities that were once in economic decline.

The second was the announcement of the annual awards of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects — an event that reminds us regularly that there is plenty of good architecture being created in Pittsburgh and that we have local firms doing work that has impact internationally.

The conjunction of these two events documents a real transformation that is occurring in Pittsburgh. The city has not only been gaining population recently — reversing a long-term decline — but a recent study shows that we are attracting a larger population of well-educated young people at the same time. “Younger” is at the root, by the way, of both the concept of “rejuvenation” and of the word itself.

Yes, it's true that similar transformations are going on elsewhere. Architectural Record also cited Oklahoma City, where the oil and natural gas drilling boom is bringing a new urbanity. And it cited Cleveland as beginning in recent years to follow the same path as Pittsburgh — building on a similar legacy of great institutions in education, health care and culture.

And yes, it has to be said that there's still too much questionable new development and mediocre new architecture going up in Western Pennsylvania today. So we shouldn't ever get smug.

But we should be celebrating the positive, and these two events show us the way.

Both the AIA and the magazine call attention to “green” buildings in Pittsburgh — ones setting new standards for environmentally sound and energy-efficient structures. The magazine says Pittsburgh is emerging as one of the greenest cities in the country.

Of its three articles about Pittsburgh, one is about the new PNC headquarters being built Downtown. Senior editor Joann Gonchar, an expert on new building technologies, says it will be the tallest office building in the country to use natural ventilation, rather than being a hermetically sealed box, like office towers of the past. It was designed by Gensler, an international firm based in San Francisco.

She did an additional article about the new Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory calling it “arguably, one of the greenest buildings in the country.” This building was planned by the Design Alliance, a local firm.

The AIA also gave out several “Green Design Citations.” One is especially notable. This is the redesign of the old South Hills High School on Mt. Washington by the Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, a perennially winning firm in local competitions. Vacant for 20 years, the huge old school was converted into 106 units of housing for the elderly along with community and commercial spaces. It achieves unusually high energy efficiency for an existing building.

Architectural Record and the AIA gave high praise for imaginative redevelopment and planning along our revived riverfronts. Lisa Schroeder, the president of Riverlife Pittsburgh, won this year's special gold medal from the AIA for her organization's work in promoting use of and access to the region's rivers. And Architectural Record cited her and her group's work prominently, as well.

The AIA gave a planning award to the local office of Perkins Eastman architects for its Allegheny Riverfront Green Boulevard “visioning” plan for the corridor stretching along the river from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center through the Strip District and Lawrenceville. At the same time, Architectural Record cited and illustrated this study as one of the far-sighted planning efforts being made in the city.

Yet, amazingly, this highly praised study is the same one that the Buncher Co. has largely ignored in its plans — currently before City Council — to redevelop 38 vacant acres along the riverfront adjacent to the Strip.

Both Architectural Record and the AIA provide near-litanies of quality buildings built or designed here in recent years. The magazine cites the Gates and Hillman Centers for new technologies at Carnegie Mellon University, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the Bakery Square redevelopment in the East End, and Three PNC Plaza, Downtown, among others.

And the AIA gave a special Silver Medal — its highest architecture award, and one not given since 2008 — to the team of designers assembled by Edge Studio and Pfaffman Associates that designed the Port Authority's new Gateway Station for the T, and an honor award to PNC's “Lantern Building” on Liberty Avenue, also by Edge Studio.

The AIA also cited three different projects by the local office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson at colleges in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and California. Giving the competition an international flavor, the AIA also gave a planning award to Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh for heading a team that won honors in Russia for a plan for a new federal government center in Moscow.

Entries in the local AIA competition are judged by architects from out of town. This year's jury was from Detroit.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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