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Architectural awards highlight some smaller projects

| Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, 8:20 p.m.
Denmarsh Photography
At St. Thomas A'Becket Roman Catholic Church in Jefferson Hills, the Downtown firm Astorino produced this dramatic wall as a backdrop to the altar.

Sometimes you have to wade your way through lots of routine to find whatever is creative, new and exciting.

That can be true with architecture columns in newspapers. But it's also the way it is this year with the annual awards of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Of 65 submissions for AIA awards this year, fully a third were for college, university and school projects — dorms, classroom buildings and labs that local architects have done across much of the country.

Most were highly competent, but nothing that would turn your head or lead you to say “Wow, this is different!”

So, what was exciting in the 2013 awards announced last week? Well, for starters let's try two walls. That's right, walls!

At St. Thomas A'Becket Church in Jefferson Hills, the Downtown firm Astorino won an award of excellence for creating a dramatic setting behind the altar of this modernistic church. The architects imaginatively covered the wall with what appear to be huge flowing waves of draperies, but are actually plaster, with the undulations enlivened with programmable LED lighting recessed into the ceiling.

This wall is designed to echo the uplifted folds of a priest's vestments during the sacrament, when he raises his arms with the host or chalice. And it does exactly that. Add the lighting, and you could imagine the heavens opening at the consecration. As one of the out-of-town jurors remarked, “Bernini (one of the architects of St. Peter's in Rome) would be very happy.”

The other wall was a creation of the local office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, using green glass panels to screen and bring into context several associated buildings, including a parking structure, on an entertainment company's multibuilding campus in Glendale, Calif. An inventively curved, green-walled stairway that helps animate the whole neighborhood struck the jurors as especially interesting.

Back here at home, a fantastical mobile “water park” called the Puriflume won for its inspired use of colorful shapes reminiscent of a giant ice-cream truck to create a moveable substitute for closed swimming pools for city kids on hot days. It can be climbed on or through and delights kids over a wide age range with its multiple water sprays. Students in the Urban Design Build Studio at Carnegie Mellon University did the work for Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh.

It's easy to underestimate the architectural significance of such limited projects as a renovated wall or a mobile playground. But the fundamental goal of good architecture is to create usable, memorable spaces and places that will move your emotions. And these projects show how good architects can do that in what otherwise might be mundane or even dispiriting situations. It's good to see these kinds of relatively small projects recognized for that.

The AIA's local awards are judged blind by a panel of out-of-town architects from a different city every year. But that doesn't keep a few local firms — Astorino and Bohlin Cywinski among them — from winning something nearly every year. Two other firms seem to score almost every year, too — EDGE Studio and the Rothschild Doyno Collaborative.

EDGE's winner this year is a renovation of an entire floor in Four Gateway Center for a design firm known as Maya Design. EDGE's imaginative plan does away with traditional hallways and creates, among various work spaces, clear pathways that begin and end with views of the city and the Point. “Kivas” — or big, round meeting spaces of the sort once used by ancient Pueblo dwellers in the American Southwest — are inserted at key points, suiting a culture of collaboration at the design firm. The renovation makes spectacular use of one of the huge open office floors at Four Gateway Center, a rectangular glass-walled office structure dating from 1960.

EDGE recently merged with GBBN Architects, which has offices internationally, and it will continue as GBBN Pittsbugh out of its current Garfield office.

On a hill outside Hinche, Haiti, about an hour-and-a-half northeast of Port-au-Prince, sits an extraordinary community center called the St. Lespwa Center of Hope. It was designed by Rothschild Doyno, a Strip District firm. It was planned and built with community involvement, partly as a job-training project. The architects achieve a high level of strongly colorful modern design based on the vernacular architecture of the area. The remote site uses solar energy and water collected at the site for utility needs and is designed for natural ventilation.

Architect Rob Pfaffmann of Pfaffmann + Associates is intensely involved in community design issues here in Pittsburgh, and he was cited for his Cafe at the Point, the small refreshment stand that sits comfortably along a walkway in Point State Park leading to the portal under the highway. The jurors found it an elegant and understated way to fit a contemporary design into a historical context.

Finally, Strada Architecture won a historic-preservation award of excellence for its renovation and restoration of some elements of the Dollar Bank on Fourth Avenue. The original nearly 150-year-old brownstone sculptures of lions were brought inside to protect them and are displayed artfully in the ornate banking hall, parts of which were restored to their 1905 character. Precise replicas of the lions were placed outside to continue to enhance the Downtown facade that has pleased Pittsburghers since 1871.

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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