Ground-level details heighten sense of place in Pittsburgh

The intersections of varying designs in the ground of Mellon Square Park on Monday, June 23, 2014.
The intersections of varying designs in the ground of Mellon Square Park on Monday, June 23, 2014.
Photo by Emily Harger | Tribune-Review
John Conti
| Saturday, June 28, 2014, 8:00 p.m.

Here's an article that's all about looking down at whatever is underfoot!

Most of us don't pay all that much attention to the pavement we walk on. But when it's not just blandly routine asphalt or concrete, what's under our feet can contribute mightily to the special “sense of place” that we all experience in many locations.

It may not be something that we consciously take note of, but it affects our feelings nonetheless.

Consider, for an example, the paving in the newly restored Mellon Square Park. It's a rough-finish gray, green and white marble terrazzo in a pattern of interlocking triangles.

Certainly the trees, flowers and fountains and the large buildings that enclose the square are the things we notice most about that special place. But the pavement plays a subtle role, too. First of all is its scale — the triangles are large, and that scale is particularly important among all those large buildings. Smaller pavement shapes might seem insignificant.

At the same time, the triangles, with their color and texture, are different from any other paving Downtown. They also have a special identity as being triangles within the Golden Triangle.

In short, the paving contributes to defining this special space with pattern, scale and texture — and even a little bit of symbolism, too.

We are lucky in Pittsburgh that there are, more and more in recent years, an abundance of attractive pavements. It wasn't too long ago — and some will remember this — when building owners would repair deteriorated sidewalks Downtown with an appallingly ugly layer of blacktop.

The city government itself has led us away from that. Granite curbs with granite-block edging, brick paving to define walkways across intersections, and even one relatively new all-brick street — Grant Street — now help define Downtown Pittsburgh and parts of the new streets on the North Shore.

Increasingly, building owners also are turning to various forms of exposed aggregate concrete — where the compressed pebbles in the concrete form the surface. This is usually a welcome visual relief from ubiquitous smooth-finish concrete.

Notable new pavements in the city in recent years include the brick paving in walkways alongside the Del Monte and StarKist buildings on the North Shore, and some of the walkways around the Rivers Casino, which have a mix of different earthen-colored bricks. A similar mix of paving materials was used at the small new Triangle Park, Downtown, where Fifth and Liberty avenues meet. And the circles and squares in the paving at PPG Place have always been notable — again done at a large scale among large buildings.

You will find a quick walk Downtown, looking at all the varieties of paving, an eye-opening experience.

Among older pavings well-maintained, there is some special pleasure to be had from the imaginative swirls in the brick plaza in front of the Fine Arts Building at Carnegie Mellon University and the big panels of dark stone around the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.

Downtown's Triangle Park was designed by LaQuatra Bonci, a leader among local landscape firms, and partner Jack LaQuatra laughs when asked about the importance of surfaces — of what landscape designers call the “ground plane” in landscape design.

“When I travel, I'm probably the only tourist around with a camera around my neck that is, as often as not, pointed down,” he says. “I am always on the lookout for interesting pavements.”

LaQuatra Bonci also designed the landscape and paving for the residential area of Washington's Landing — the former Herr's Island in the middle of the Allegheny about three miles north of the Point. There, the mix of brick, Belgian block, concrete and asphalt used to define public and private spaces, intersections and different types of streets provides a how-to example of the uses of different pavements.

There are problems with special pavements, though, and that is that they need good maintenance. When concrete starts showing cracks or when asphalt begins to crumble, we are usually not too bothered by the repairs. But when special pavement deteriorates (and, in our climate, all paving deteriorates sooner or later) it needs special care when fixed.

And it is surprising sometimes how careless the repairs can be. At the Carnegie Museums in Oakland, the sculpture court at the rear of the art museum — designed by the late landscape architect Dan Kiley — has been so indifferently repaired, it appears to be neglected.

Kiley is one of the two or three most important Modernist landscape architects of the 20th century. Yet, the carefully planned angular lines of his stepped courtyard design, marked with dark stone and gravel, are now interrupted at more than a dozen places by carelessly applied asphalt. And this is a museum! Where conserving art is a priority! Go figure.

The museum has plans — among its other capital projects — to, ultimately, restore this space. But, of course, that raises the question: Why repair it carelessly in the first place?

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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