Reuse of spaces aided by good design
Architects are too often treated in the popular press as artists who build spectacular new buildings intended to amaze you.
Their designs make for dramatic photography and get the most attention.
But — in the real world — sometimes the most satisfying results occur when architects put their hand to existing buildings, inventively enhancing the beauty and utility of what is already here.
That has been demonstrated amply this year as seen in the roster of awards given last week by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Of 15 major awards, nine were for top-quality additions or renovations.
A stand-out in the awards — and one with lessons that any building committee at any church or school can find relevant — was the wholesale re-imagining of a Catholic church and its long-closed adjacent school building in Carnegie by Lami Grubb Architects.
Carnegie is one of many towns in Western Pennsylvania where Catholic schools have closed and parishes have been consolidated over the years. And St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish today is made up of what were once a half dozen parishes that served the borough.
To accommodate the expanded needs for the one remaining church building, the architects situated a large and brightly lit new narthex/entranceway (topped with a pyramidal skylight) between what was originally the back of the 1880s church and its school building.
Then, they quite literally turned the church around on the inside. Where the altar once stood became a broad new glass entranceway, accessed from the new narthex. And what was once the main entrance and front facade of the church became the back wall behind a new very modern altar.
The church sits on a corner, making this switch both possible and appealing.
They needed to make only minimal changes to blend the exteriors of the two buildings with the modern addition between them, and only a few changes inside the school building to convert it to offices and meeting rooms.
Other awards for imaginative reuse of older buildings went to Gensler for its conversion of the old classically columned Mellon Bank headquarters on Smithfield Street. Most recently used as an ill-conceived and short-lived department store, the former banking hall was turned into a call center for PNC while bringing many of its historic features back to life.
Desmone & Associates Architects were recognized for renovations at the Andy Warhol Museum on the North Side; NEXT Architecture for creating a loft-like space in an existing Penn Avenue building, Stantec for a suitably modern addition to a student commons at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; and Fukui Architects for a striking restaurant redesign in a Bridgeville strip mall.
The most spectacular new architecture was, by far, a set of townhouses in Braddock by the Rothschild Doyno Collaborative. Rothschild Doyno has become a perennial winner in the local AIA competitions, and took three awards this year in total.
One of the most satisfying awards — because it says routine public-works projects can be better in the hands of a creative architect — went to Pfaffmann + Associates for the architectural features of the new South Highland Avenue Bridge between East Liberty and Shadyside. The rebuilt bridge crosses the Norfolk Southern Railroad mainline that runs through the East End.
Pfaffmann combined lighting, a standard chain-link fence and features that frame views from the bridge to striking effect, making the bridge into something pedestrians can actually enjoy. Interpretative panels highlight the history of the area.
The Urban Design Build Studio at Carnegie Mellon University's architecture school also figured in this year's awards, as it did last year. Its project was to envision new ways to pre-fabricate revisions to older existing city homes to make them more sustainable and livable.
Finally, the AIA gives an award every year for timeless architecture — older buildings that have stood the test of time and still manage to match function and good looks.
The building recognized this year was Ingham and Boyd's classic Board of Public Education Building, which is opposite the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel in Oakland. The judges, noting that the 1927 building is handsome and well-scaled for its setting, pointed out that it is unusual to see an older building still fulfilling its original use. “What,” they said in their comments, “is there not to like?” Ingham & Boyd was the predecessor firm to today's IKM Inc. architects.
The AIA's annual awards program is judged every year by out-of-town juries who waded through 78 nominations this year by local architects or by national firms that have a Pittsburgh office. This year's judges were from New York City.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.