Heinz center's show highlights 1st steps of architectural thought
The folks at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art manage to put on continually interesting shows, year after year.
Sometimes, they have genuine blockbusters — a show of Palladio's original drawings several years ago, an exhibit of sculptures by architect Maya Lin after that, and, more recently, a beautifully photographed and eye-opening show on new museum designs that showed how integrating museums and landscapes can make a literal world of difference.
And in between the blockbusters, they still have smaller shows that can very much delight, sometimes amuse and always instruct.
The exhibit “Sketch to Structure” is one of those, and it will be on display until May 25.
It's intended to take the visitor through the ways architects develop and present their ideas, from fanciful abstract sketches all the way to detailed blueprints.
Using a “case study” approach, it illustrates work from Victorian times to the present-day, from old pencil-and-ink drawings to today's computer-aided designs.
Particularly relevant is its use of more than a half-dozen local projects to illustrate some of its ideas. There are sketches and models of the Pittsburgh International Airport by Tasso Katselas. And a series of concept sketches that show how the plans for a campus garden project at Carnegie Mellon University were developed.
To illustrate construction drawings, there are the blueprints for a very traditional 1935 house in Pittsburgh.
A modernistic house built on Woodland Road in Shadyside by the late Pittsburgh architect Joseph R. Gasparella is represented with Gasparella's model, four renderings and three floor plans. These demonstrate convincingly how an architect explains his plans and ideas to clients.
I have always been suspect of some of the fanciful squiggles that some architects display, claiming they show their first ideas for a building. Frank Gehry is particularly noted for indecipherable conceptual squiggles. But I've become convinced over time that these sorts of abstractions are actually useful.
One case study shows how West Coast architect Lorcan O'Herlihy, starting with just a few quick squiggles, begins to sketch ideas about balance and color. Then, lo and behold, through various artistic transitions, the sketches lead to an actual quite-good-looking modern apartment building and a park-like setting for it.
It's not particularly easy to understand, but it is right there on the wall in front of you.
Less elusive, but still fascinating, are elevation drawings, sketches and floor plans by Edwin Lutyens for a country cottage in England, in the period 1908-10. They give you an idea about the thought processes of an exceptionally influential English architect of the late 19th and early 20th century.
I was fascinated by a single drawing by the Victorian-era Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. It is of a “Watchman's Box” — if we saw one today we'd just call it a “shack” — that was designed for the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1882. It may be a design for a tiny shack, but the man couldn't be anything but interesting.
Furness' idiosyncratic designs and ingenious structural solutions have been important to architects, even if he was less-known to the general public. He designed three long-since torn down buildings here — the old B&O railroad station, an imposing Fourth Avenue Bank and the original East Liberty station. One Furness building, the train station in Edgewood, remains.
If you know a young person who might be interested in architecture as a career, or you are one yourself, “Sketch to Structure” is a must-visit.
There are interactive work stations where students of all ages can practice sketching or modeling buildings. And the museum wants you to put your drawings on the wall so others can see.
Although the exhibit will close at the end of May, part of it will reopen in June, July and August as part of the museum's summer art and architecture camps.
John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.