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625 Liberty building deserves more recognition for style

| Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Street level of the EQT building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
From left, One Oliver Plaza (K&L Gates), the EQT building and Two PNC Plaza building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The lower floors of the EQT building downtown mimic the height of it neighbor Heinz Hall Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The 20th floor of the EQT building (bottom left) lines up with the adjacent building nearby downtown Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The Two PNC Plaza building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The Two PNC Plaza building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Street-level of the EQT building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Statues adorn the open plaza next to the EQT building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
From left, One Oliver Plaza (K&L Gates), the EQT building and Two PNC Plaza building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014 as seen through the Clemente Bridge.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
The EQT building downtown Friday, January 10, 2014 has a Keystone motif at the top.

The 32-story granite-faced office tower at 625 Liberty Ave. seems undeservedly anonymous among Downtown's well-known buildings. Partly, that's because it's had five names in its relatively short 27-year history.

Built as AI Tower, it was then known for about a dozen years as CNG Tower, later became Dominion Tower, and is known today as EQT tower. But, for obvious reasons, a lot of its tenants have always called it 625 Liberty anyway. And to some Pittsburghers, it's simply “that building where Morton's is.”

That's too bad, because this is one of our finest office buildings Downtown, and also a premiere example of the Postmodern style of architecture that has dominated the nation's commercial and institutional architecture for the past 35 years or so.

Architecture, like other arts, has always been classified by styles. Classical, Renaissance, Gothic, Beaux Arts, Arts and Crafts, and Modern are all style names that readers may have encountered in this column recently. Yet, Postmodern may seem to be a bit of a puzzle — just exactly what does that style-name mean, and what are the characteristics of Postmodern architecture?

First, it's important to recognize that Modern, as an architectural style, doesn't mean current. It is most often used to refer to buildings built from the 1920s through the 1960s and '70s that generally eschewed ornamentation and emphasized the use of new materials. In the case of American office buildings, that meant steel, aluminum and glass.

The sleek, silvery, reflective-glass office tower right across the street from 625 Liberty — known today as Two PNC Plaza and earlier as the Equibank Building — is an exceptionally fine example of late Modern. Its two joined hexagonal towers have an undifferentiated glass skin from head to toe. There is no ornament on the building at all, and the entrances are simple, unaccented openings at ground level. The building begins the same way it ends, 34 stories later.

It was designed in the early 1970s by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of Chicago, the pre-eminent designers of modern-style office buildings of the time. And, like so many modern buildings, it was designed as an “object,” not necessarily related to its environment, but something to be admired for its own beauty.

It's quite an oversimplification to say it this way, but architects essentially tired of Modernism and its simplicity and directness. And so 625 Liberty, built less than 15 years later, is totally different.

Where Modern buildings insistently used modern materials, Postmodern buildings reintroduced traditional-looking materials and began to use traditional architectural shapes combined in sometimes unusual ways.

As a result, 625 Liberty is clad in granite (two shades of brown) and has a long entrance arcade accentuated by Classical-like arches. There are old-fashioned-looking cornices at several levels and, at the top, two symbolic items intended to reflect Pittsburgh. There's an exaggerated keystone shape encompassing some large windows at the front and back, and, of all things, a bridge-like arch at each side. The arch looks a lot like the 16th Street Bridge a few blocks away and was intended to identify the building as being situated in a city of rivers and bridges.

Moreover, Postmodern buildings such as 625 Liberty were designed to fit in with the buildings and streets around them, as opposed to being admired as stand-alone objects.

You can see on 625 Liberty a close relationship to Midtown Towers, the domed 18-story 1907 building that is beside it on Liberty. Midtown Towers is 60 feet wide, so the designers gave 625 Liberty three 60-foot-wide bays. The three bays stand out somewhat separately, and the one closest to Midtown Towers was built at 20 stories, deliberately matching the bulk of the older building.

There also are cornices and other horizontal lines on the lower facade of 625 Liberty that line up exactly with similar lines on Midtown Towers and approximately with the lines of the Clark Building, which also faces Liberty in the next block.

Further, at the left of the building, the architects added a slightly recessed four-story bustle that matched up in height with side of Heinz Hall and forms a backdrop for the Heinz Hall park. Finally, they placed the plaza for 625 Liberty so that it would be the punctuation at the end of the view down Sixth Avenue.

The architects were Kohn, Pedersen, Fox of New York, noted for its office buildings throughout the country. Such care and interest in surrounding buildings would have been nearly unheard of in the days when Modernism was dominant.

These days, Postmodernism is rapidly becoming passé just the way Modernism did. It is being replaced with such a variety of building styles, though, that there is no current single “ism” to be talked about. Buildings vary so widely in these days of computer-generated designs that no one has yet come up with a style-name that encompasses them. It will probably be a while before someone looking back on “our age” comes up with a good one.

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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