Good design on a budget is not only possible, it can be award-winning
Architects' ambitions tend to run to the highly visible.
Plum commissions are for things like big museums, high-rise office buildings in thriving downtowns, amply financed university buildings ... all places where architects can preen with their talents for everyone to see.
But a rural community center in hurricane-ravaged, out-of-sight Haiti? Apartment buildings for the elderly? Affordable housing in a decayed Mon Valley mill town?
It takes really classy architects to devote as much design talent and energy to those kinds of projects as to more spectacular ones. And we have such a classy firm here: Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, headquartered in the Strip District.
Rothschild Doyno this month won a top national award given by the American Institute of Architects for its design of a community center built largely by residents in a rural part of Haiti. The last time any local firm won a national AIA award like that on its own was 16 years ago.
At the same time, Rothschild Doyno has been winning local recognition for three projects in Braddock — possibly the most decayed of all the suffering mill towns in this area. It is more than halfway through a plan that will restore a sense of a city center to Braddock in the huge vacant space where Braddock Hospital, abandoned by UPMC and then torn down, used to be.
It is a case of high-quality architecture and urban design being provided for those who can least afford it.
You can look at photos of one of the projects — a row of townhouses called The Overlook on the hillside site of the former hospital — and be impressed by the stylish angularity of the buildings and their vibrant colors. But when you go there, you will be even more impressed by some of the subtleties that make the architecture work.
There are sight lines that connect the development to other parts of the town. The community rooms in the townhomes open at the threshold of a planned new park. And these are distinctively shaped so that they will frame a downhill view of the park through breaks in the two rows of buildings. Front porches line the streets, and balconies overlook the proposed park space, as well.
This is all affordable housing, done by private developers with state-assisted financing in a downtrodden town.
Conversely, you can find any number of premium-priced “upscale” developments in this region that don't come anywhere close to this kind of well-thought-out design. Those are the kinds of places where rows of townhouses show mainly their garage doors to the street, where side walls that face potential views are left inexplicably blank, or where developments drown in a sea of parked cars.
Rothschild Doyno's three Braddock projects frame the future park, along Braddock Avenue, on three sides. The first was a four-story apartment building for seniors — Avenue Apartments — in 2010. The second comprises the two (someday to be three) rows of townhomes completed in 2013. And the third is an adjacent commercial row, with shops and live-work spaces, in 2014.
This commercial row also houses the new urgent-care health facility opened this month by the Allegheny Health Network and much sought by the community since the hospital closed.
If you've ever experienced how dismal some apartment buildings for seniors can be, you'll be delighted with how daylight floods the Avenue Apartments. Common spaces with large floor-to-ceiling windows are set on each floor opposite the elevator lobby. They line up with the nearest perpendicular street, Fourth Street, and open views all the way to the hills on the other side of the Mon.
At night, these same rooms, when illuminated, provide a lively aspect for people looking up from Fourth Street, enhancing a meaningful connection to the town.
Then, at one end of the halls, floor-to-ceiling windows line up with a view toward a picturesque old church across the way.
The same care that went into these designs was exercised for the award-winning project in Haiti. This was built in Haiti's central plateau area in a rural community where the economy is based largely on subsistence farming. There are no utilities available, and the site is accessed by a dirt road.
So, the community center, called Sant Lespwa, or Center of Hope, was designed to be totally self-sufficient. That required careful planning for natural ventilation, daylighting, water collection and sewage. The center was built in close consultation with the community, and it consists of three small buildings clustered around a courtyard.
It includes a meeting hall plus administrative and social spaces. Rainwater is collected from the butterfly roofs, and solar panels provide electricity for night lighting and for pumps for the water and sewage systems The AIA jury praised the “simple, yet beautiful” design and its “pragmatic and responsive” attention to the needs of the community.
Rothschild Doyno was founded 26 years ago, with the senior partners being Daniel Rothschild and Ken Doyno. It has 21 members on staff. A new member of the partnership, Mike Gwin, was the lead architect on the Haiti project and heavily involved in Braddock.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.