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Pittsburgh architects honored for works here, worldwide

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Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011
 

The honors given in architectural award competitions always say as much about the panel of judges as about the architecture they're judging.

And it's clear that the out-of-town panel that judged this year's competition for members of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects likes buildings that are "edgy."

"Edgy" in the sense of being out there on the fringes of new design; "edgy" in the sense of having a certain nervy provocativeness to them; and "edgy" in the sense of being trendy and cool.

But also "edgy," it's worth noting, in the sense of Edge Studio -- a young but already distinguished local architecture firm that won three out of the local AIA's nine top architecture awards this year. The out-of-towners judge the entries anonymously, of course, and there's a different panel every year, but Edge seems to win something in this competition almost annually.

These awards are noteworthy, though, for far more than just bragging rights in the architecture profession. They bring to public attention the significant fact that a lot of quality architecture is practiced in Pittsburgh these days and that a generous handful of top-notch local studios do first-class work not just here, but nationally and internationally, as well. The 90 entries in this year's competition include nearly a score of buildings or projects designed by Pittsburgh architects in 12 states, as well as in England, Egypt, India and Abu Dhabi.

The award winners were announced at a reception Wednesday night at the August Wilson Center.

Edge Studio's three winners illustrate best the kind of new architecture that the profession tends to reward these days.

One top winner was the new Carnegie Library Branch in East Liberty, an irregularly-faceted, black-metal reshaping and expansion of a branch building from the 1960s. Nothing remains to be seen of the older library building, and the architects gave this redesign a distinctive vitality that's apparent no matter what angle you approach it from, adorning it all the while with a couple of very obvious Carnegie Library logos. There's no mistaking what this building is, or that it has a special purpose and presence in this neighborhood, and that's all to the good.

The building's functionality was enhanced in the redesign, too, with clear divisions among different sections of the facility and clear paths through the bright, spacious and -- of course -- quiet interior.

Two other Edge buildings won the equivalent of honorable-mention awards. An Edge-designed annex to Erie's downtown Art Museum features a distinctive sharply-angled glass atrium that houses a new entrance, gift shop and cafe. And a sleek addition to the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh was praised for its sophistication.

Among the best buildings in the competition were two homes in the city -- the so-called Emerald Art Glass House on the South Side, which won a top award, and the LoLa House in lower Lawrenceville, which got an honorable mention. Both of these buildings are trendily dressed entirely in industrial materials. But there's great virtue in both designs.

The LoLa house actually sits very comfortably in a traditional hillside neighborhood of modest 19th-century Pittsburgh houses. With scale and proportions consistent with its neighbors, it looks every bit as proudly new as they once did. The designer was Moss Architects.

The nearest neighbors to the Emerald Art Glass House are factory and warehouse buildings and an elevated railroad main line. Indeed, this residence, built behind and above the factory of the Emerald Art Glass company, is for the plant's owner. (The jurors said it "takes 'living above the shop' to a new extreme.")

With its cantilevered Corten steel-clad crow's nest set above the factory, the building may look like a stunt from its pictures, but it's far from that. Viewed up close, this project by Fisher Architects seems like the perfect answer to fitting the client's needs to the hillside site and, at the same time, providing the dramatic view of the city's Downtown that most folks covet.

Among other key awards:

• Renaissance 3 Architects won the Historic Preservation Award of Excellence for its work on the Kaufmann Center in the Hill District; Urban Design Associates for plans to re-invigorate neighborhoods in Cincinnati

• Gensler (the big national firm) in association with local firm Astorino for Three PNC Plaza

• IDC Architects for the Mountbatten Nanotechnology Electronics Research Complex at the University of Southampton in England

• the local office of Stantec for the Springfield Literacy Center, near Philadelphia

• Rothschild Doyno Collaborative for The Avenue Apartments on Braddock Avenue in the East End

• Evolve Architecture for an imaginative ecological and architectural approach to revitalizing the Larimer neighborhood of Pittsburgh

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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