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Downtown landmarks shouldn't be tagged by corporate graffiti artists

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The sign on the Koppers Building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday July 3, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The sign on the Koppers Building and the UPMC sign of the USX Building across the street from each other on Wednesday July 3, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The PNC sign on Riverfront Center in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday July 3, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The First Niagara sign at 11 Stanwix Street in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday July 3, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
The PNC sign on Riverfront Center in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday July 3, 2013.

The corporate graffiti artists in our town have been at it again, and this time they've struck one of our finest buildings, that exemplary essay in Art Deco architecture, the Koppers Building.

By “corporate” graffiti artists, I mean, of course, those banks, corporations and law firms that have plastered their names in lighted signs atop Downtown architecture in recent years.

Even the biggest charitable organization in town annoyingly proclaims its name in two-story high letters at the top of the tallest building in the city, visible from as much as five or six miles away.

What have we come to in Pittsburgh, when everyone from UPMC to PNC has to assert its presence in such in-your-face ways?

This truly is graffiti, because you have to believe that it is driven by the same simple hubris and herd instinct among corporate executives as what leads kids to spray-paint their personal or street-gang logos on every bridge abutment or blank wall they can find.

That's partly why the new signs that went up this past month near the top of the Koppers building are so vexing.

Unlike, say, UPMC (which has the biggest sign) or PNC (which has the most signs on big buildings), Koppers doesn't deal with your average consumer. Its main products are chemicals derived from coal tar for making things like wood preservatives and plastics, and they are sold to industries. So Koppers doesn't even have the excuse of consumer advertising to explain the defacement of a historic building.

And what about some of our old-line law firms, like Reed Smith or Kirkpatrick & Lockhart (now K&L Gates)? Are they really trying to get the average consumer to walk in off the street?

There are a couple of arguments often raised in favor of these big billboards being put up on skyscrapers. Advertising is the most obvious and realistic theme. Others think these signs show the economic vitality of a town, and still others opine that lighted signs at night are more interesting than just boring buildings.

But the arguments against the signs are far stronger.

First of all, good architecture is art. And most of us learned to quit scribbling over art by the time we were 3 or 4. Downtown's corporate architecture has always been on the conservative side, but it's usually been good architecture nonetheless. Buildings like the old Westinghouse Building on Stanwix, the EQT Tower, Two PNC Plaza and One Mellon Center all present some very fine architecture — but all are now burdened with what are electrified advertisements at best.

Text and architecture just don't mix. That's especially so when the signs are corporate logos that are totally unrelated in design to the buildings they're placed on. And if the logos are not particularly clever or attractive in the first place, they are even worse when written big and lighted at night.

One of the most offensive, in this category, is the yellow-and-blue First Niagara logo halfway up the sides of the former Westinghouse headquarters building on Stanwix Street. One of the signs faces Grandview Avenue on Mt. Washington. This black aluminum-and-glass building was designed in 1968 by Harrison & Abramovitz of New York, planners of Lincoln Center, the United Nation's Secretariat Building and many mid-century office buildings in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. The building was intended to be dark and elegant. Instead, it's been “tagged” with what might as well be some kid's yellow and blue spray paint.

The same thing happened halfway up the travertine-faced Riverfront Center, directly across Stanwix. It got tagged with PNC's undistinguished logo, again intended to be seen by viewers on Mt. Washington.

Law firm K & L Gates is another visual offender, with its name starkly rendered in unsophisticated block lettering atop One Oliver Plaza. BNY Mellon and Highmark both manage to interrupt with their names the carefully planned tops of their buildings as well.

Sometimes, a few signs in any downtown are fine. And some signs get to be so old, they become landmarks themselves. Think of the “PL&E RR” sign on the defunct railroad's 112-year-old former station on the South Side, or of the Heinz Ketchup bottle re-installed on the Heinz History Museum.

But we have, today, too many signs in our Downtown that are simply tributes to tasteless corporate vanity. Our Downtown architecture used to be dignified. Cluttering it with sometimes purposeless corporate branding is dumb.

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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