Convention center marks 10 years

John Conti
| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The David L. Lawrence Convention Center is the most undervalued piece of fine architecture in our city.

Yes, most of us know it best viewing it from across the Allegheny River, where its huge, broadly sloping white roofs invariably make out-of-towners wonder “what is that?” And many have heard that this is one of the most environment-friendly large buildings in the world. But few of us have enough excuses to go inside often to experience how delightful this bright and airy building can be.

Despite its dramatic design, it is rigorously planned to function well, and its current top manager, when asked what he would change about the building's configuration after supervising years of conventions, exhibitions and meetings, says “Not a thing!” That's a tremendous compliment to any building, to the building's architects and to the local committees involved in its planning.

Dedicated 10 years ago this year, the convention center was designed by Rafael Vinoly Architects from New York, which won a national competition for the design.

While its geometric designs may seem whimsical, they are not. Everything in the design of this extraordinary building has purpose. Those roofs have everything to do with lighting the exhibition space and controlling the air that moves through it. This was the first convention center where the main exhibition hall and most lobbies and concourses can be lit almost entirely with natural daylight. At the same time, the building can be ventilated naturally for much of the year with fresh air flowing in from the outside.

All this fresh air and daylight makes the center psychologically attractive to visitors. Though there are meeting rooms, lecture halls and similar windowless spaces, almost every time you step out of a room you see daylight.

That's also part of the reason why it has been so successful as an energy-efficient “green” building. With natural air circulation, reduced need for air conditioning, heating and lighting, its own water-treatment plant, and a recycling system, it operates as one of the greenest large buildings anywhere. Buildings are given LEED ratings, short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and the convention center was certified last May as “LEED Platinum” for an existing building — the highest possible rating it could achieve.

There is only one big problem with the convention center. Despite how well it operates overall, it doesn't have a proper pedestrian entrance. Lots of us have wondered over the years, “How do we get into this thing?”

That's because the grand entrance was to have been through a shared and spacious lobby in a connected hotel that's never been built. (The space, at Penn and Tenth, is still a parking lot.) You would have entered from Penn and found elevators at the back of the big lobby that would have taken you up to the third and fourth levels of the center. It's unfortunate that a hotel has not been built and that there are still no definitive plans to build one.

Good architects lavish extra attention on entrance sequences because they help set your mood as you enter a building, and this sequence would have been fascinating — and still could be, if the hotel or some similar structure is ever built.

Consider this: On the third level (the first of two stops on the elevator) you would have entered and walked across the glass-walled bridge suspended over the almost-six-acre, column-free exposition hall, creating excitement and expectation as you looked down on the exhibitions below. Then, you would have walked toward the brightly lit lobby with all glass walls facing the river and showing expansive views of the city's North Side. From there you would descend by escalator or circular glass elevator to the already-glimpsed exhibition hall.

That would have been a truly memorable entrance! If you went to the fourth level, which would have been open to the public, you would have found yourself outside on the center's roof, with an open-air passage between the great sloping sections of the roof leading you to the large roof terrace that runs the whole length of the building — some 1,000 feet long — overlooking the river.

This lack of a good pedestrian entrance may be one reason why the center has not had the impact on us locally that it should have had.

Finally, it's also important that the convention center was designed to relate well to the river. Huge glassed-in lobbies on the second and third levels and outdoor terraces on the third, plus the rooftop terrace, all look out over the river or views of the city. Outside, a water feature cascades down, with a walkway toward the river, between the lanes of Tenth Street, and then goes under Fort Duquesne Boulevard directly to a recently finished plaza at the waterfront. Turn left, and you can walk down to the esplanade to the Point. In fact, someday soon, you'll be able to turn left and walk all the way from the convention center to Washington, D.C.!

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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