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Architecture

Innovative concepts take center stage in Design Pittsburgh competition

John Conti
| Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, 8:21 p.m.
A waterfall and swimming pool at the edge of Mt. Washington?  Many in the city would like to find a new use for the huge, iconic billboard on Mt. Washington that for years provided corporate advertising for Bayer and Alcoa.  As part of the AIA’s special competition for young design professionals, five South Side architects imagined the billboard surrounded by observation decks, a water feature, and a swimming pool.
A waterfall and swimming pool at the edge of Mt. Washington? Many in the city would like to find a new use for the huge, iconic billboard on Mt. Washington that for years provided corporate advertising for Bayer and Alcoa. As part of the AIA’s special competition for young design professionals, five South Side architects imagined the billboard surrounded by observation decks, a water feature, and a swimming pool.
Architecture and urban design students get their chance to design and build imaginative projects every year -- and they tend to win local AIA awards every year too. One of this year’s projects is a Mobile Fabrication Lab called RE_FAB that can be hauled to schools to demonstrate computer controlled manufacturing devices such as 3D printers.
Architecture and urban design students get their chance to design and build imaginative projects every year -- and they tend to win local AIA awards every year too. One of this year’s projects is a Mobile Fabrication Lab called RE_FAB that can be hauled to schools to demonstrate computer controlled manufacturing devices such as 3D printers.
Here’s a rendering of a house that’s intended to proclaim its presence in what is essentially the middle of nowhere – out on a vast prairie in North Dakota.  It’s not built – and may never be – but it responds to its environment with earth berms that shelter interior courtyards from the prairie winds. It was designed by Fisher Architects.
Here’s a rendering of a house that’s intended to proclaim its presence in what is essentially the middle of nowhere – out on a vast prairie in North Dakota. It’s not built – and may never be – but it responds to its environment with earth berms that shelter interior courtyards from the prairie winds. It was designed by Fisher Architects.
The “Uptown Lofts” on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh were cited for  “achieving so much in so many categories” in this year’s Pittsburgh AIA awards, embodying  attractive and affordable housing that’s environmentally efficient.  The design, for Action-Housing was done by FortyEight Architecture.
The “Uptown Lofts” on Fifth Avenue in Pittsburgh were cited for “achieving so much in so many categories” in this year’s Pittsburgh AIA awards, embodying attractive and affordable housing that’s environmentally efficient. The design, for Action-Housing was done by FortyEight Architecture.

Can you create a swimming pool out of an aging rusted billboard on Mt. Washington? Or put a billboard-like greeting on a low-slung, earth-berm house on the Midwest prairie? Or create a mobile laboratory that proclaims its purpose to you on its billboard-like sides?

Well, it seems if you are a Pittsburgh architect — or Pittsburgh architecture students — you can at least imagine these things and, in some cases, even build them.

The 2015 Design Pittsburgh awards given out recently in the annual competition sponsored by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Institute of Architects show that architectural imagination is alive and well in this city.

Not only did these three challenging projects win notice, but the overall quality of all the buildings receiving awards was quite high this year. Most of them could well deserve to be proclaimed on a billboard.

By far, the most “fun-filled” design was a project titled “Baths at the Billboard” from architects at Renaissance 3, a South Side firm. Five young architects at the firm took up a challenge to come up with ideas for the old Bayer (and before that, Alcoa) billboard atop Mt. Washington.

This illuminated and animated billboard has become such a fixture of Pittsburgh since it was built in the 1920s that even historic preservationists think it ought to be saved. But the question is how.

The young architects proposed a structure built around the sign that would frame observation decks and hold a swimming pool. After all, a water feature might be appropriate at the junction of three rivers, even if it is some 350 feet above them. Their award is a special one that the AIA gives annually to young architects and students for creative ideas to solve regional problems.

Could it actually be built on the steep hillside? The out-of-town jurors who judged the competition wondered that, too. Still, they said, it could become “The Hanging Water Gardens of Pittsburgh.” Either way, it's exactly the kind of imagination we need to bring new life to valued old aspects of our city.

Several years ago, Shadyside-based architect Eric Fisher designed a modernistic house in an industrial part of the South Side that was cantilevered above a factory. It was so spectacular when built that it merited a major feature in The New York Times. Now, his small Shadyside firm called Fisher Architecture is challenging notions of what a house built on a flat, vast and empty North Dakota prairie might look like.

Its winning (but as yet unbuilt) design uses earth berms to protect interiors from the harsh winds of the region, enclosing three interior courtyards. The renderings for the house take a bow to architectural humor by featuring a billboard that shows an aerial map of the site and the welcoming words, “You are here,” which seems fitting for a site that might be considered “in the middle of nowhere.” It was entered in a “Design Innovation” category that permits unbuilt projects.

The third design fitting the “billboard” theme was by the Urban Design-Build Studio at Carnegie Mellon University. This one actually got built. The studio gives architecture and urban planning students — graduate and undergraduate — a hands-on opportunity to work on community needs.

Their project this year is called “RE_FAB” — a mobile fabrication lab. What's that? Well, it's a teaching tool — a trailer that can be hauled around to schools and other sites to demonstrate the potential of new types of high-tech digital tools housed in the trailer, such as computer-controlled routing machines and 3-D printers.

This competition has its perennial winners who seem to get awards year after year, even though the jurors change every year and are always from out of town. (This year, they were from Austin.) GBBN Architecture (the former Edge Studio) won for a renovation and addition to the Carnegie Library's Beechview branch and the Pittsburgh office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson for a sciences building at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Strada Architects won two awards — one for converting the old Reed Smith law firm headquarters building into the new Hotel Monaco and another for rehabilitating historic structures and providing new additions on the campus of St. Joseph's Cathedral in Wheeling, W.Va.

One client, working with two architectural firms, was responsible for three awards. Action-Housing is a local nonprofit that provides low-cost housing. Its new neighborhood center in Hazelwood and a renovated historic building in McKeesport won awards for designers Thoughtful Balance, a Friendship-based firm. And the jurors expressed particular enthusiasm for the nonprofit's new Uptown Lofts low-cost housing on Fifth Avenue, designed by FortyEight Architecture.

Other winners in the competition included Front Studio Architects; Folan + Trumble; Perkins Eastman; Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goetel; Stantec; LGA Partners; DLA+ Architecture; studio d'ARC; Bucco Architecture; and the local office of AE7; as well as Pittsburgh firms Loysen + Kreuthmeier and WTW Architects, both working on projects with out-of-town firms.

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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