Carnegie Museum opens dialogue on architecture's relevance

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art is taking a look back at its history, and this look back involves you.


To celebrate its 20th anniversary of mounting regularly changing exhibitions and to lay out its ambitions for the future, the center opened a new show Saturday called “20/20” that brings out for display some of the best pieces in its collection and invites the public to participate in talking about architecture.

“There are certainly many people who will tell you they are not interested in architecture,” curator Tracy Myers says, “but if you say, ‘Tell me about your street; Tell me what you like about your neighborhood,' then they begin to see that architecture is not only relevant to their lives, but is inescapable.”

A centerpiece of the show is wall-size video interviews with five Pittsburghers who are not architecture professionals, but who talk about how architecture has influenced their lives. They include a university professor who lives in the historic Schenley Farms district of Oakland; a theatrical director and producer who stages plays in different settings; and a much-revered elder from the Hill District who talks about the changes in her neighborhood over the years.

The center then invites visitors to sit down in front of a camera themselves and tape their narratives about architecture and why it's important to them. The responses may be compiled at some point for the exhibition website, and could conceivably become a part of the exhibition itself. The show will be up until May 19 and, Myers says, “we'll see how well we can open up a conversation — we're allowing this to be experimental and iterative.”

Visitors also can say what they might like to see in the exhibition that isn't there, and there's a chance that before the exhibit ends, their wishes will be accommodated.

It's all an effort to recognize that — as we see so many times these days — individuals (often through neighborhood associations) are becoming more deeply involved than ever in influencing private and public designs that affect their neighborhoods. This has been something of a paradigm shift for the way planning is done, as architects and planners today often sponsor public meetings to gather input while they're planning.

And it's also a paradigm shift for the museum's Architecture Center, which is thinking that visitor involvement in future shows is going to become routine. It expects to become less didactic and more interactive.

To highlight this notion of an interactive celebration, the exhibit opened Saturday night, not with the traditional wine, cheese and gallery stroll, but with CAKEitecture — where five local design firms combined with five local bakeries to create some decidedly edible birthday “architecture” for the first-night crowd.

For traditionalists who like their museum experience to be a bit more on the instructive side, though, the exhibit has lots of visual treats, too. The two current curators — Myers and Raymund Ryan — invited their three curatorial predecessors from the past 20 years and one curatorial assistant to join them in selecting 20 outstanding objects from the center's collections of more than 5,500 models, drawings, photographs and books.

Among the most fascinating is an intricately detailed 200-year-old mahogany model, with paint and gilt, of an early American church — possibly St. Paul's Chapel at Fulton and Broad streets in New York City. There are some discrepancies between the model and the actual St. Paul's, so the identity of the church is not certain. The purpose of the model isn't clear either, but it could possibly have been used for some old-fashioned 19th-century fundraising. The model was obtained for the center in 1991 by the Henry J. and Drue Heinz Foundation.

Two drawings will be of particular interest to regular visitors to the Carnegie.

One drawing shows the original front elevation of the Carnegie Music Hall, facing Forbes Avenue, as designed by the firm of Longfellow, Alden and Harlow in about 1895. In the drawing, two Italianate towers flank the original semi-circular front wall and entrance. Those towers were built, but were removed by 1907 when the current, opulently decorated Music Hall foyer was constructed in front of the curved facade.

The second drawing is an elaborate rendering of the facade of the 12th-century Church of St. Gilles in Southern France. Regular museumgoers will quickly recognize that this is the church front reproduced in the huge plaster cast that has been on display at the Hall of Architecture at the museum for about a hundred years. The cast — one of the largest of its kind — was shipped to the Carnegie in 1906 in 200 crates, and this drawing was used to guide the laborers who assembled the pieces into the full-size facade experienced today. The right side of the drawing shows the supports behind the cast.

Other original drawings and models in the exhibit range from the work of Viollet-le-Duc, a French architect of the 19th century, through Englishmen such as John Sloane and Edwin Lutyens, to American modernists such as Paul Rudolph, Richard Neutra, Philip Johnson and Louis Kahn.

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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