5 decades of design highlighted in "Action, Ideas, Architecture: Arthur Lubetz/Front Studio"
The exhibit “Action, Ideas, Architecture: Arthur Lubetz/Front Studio,” currently on display in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art, explores the five-decade long career of Pittsburgh architect Arthur Lubetz, as well as his practice with Front Studio, a New York-based firm founded by two of his former students, with which he merged in 2011.
A practicing architect since 1967, Lubetz earned a degree in architecture from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), and has taught there at the School of Architecture since 1988.
Organized by architecture historian and critic Charles L. Rosenblum from materials on loan from the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives, Front Studio, and other lenders, the exhibit presents significant projects from Lubetz's career, through original drawings, models and photography.
Strident in appearance, his buildings represent physical forces that can be described in action words, such as cutting, splitting, slicing and peeling.
“He's a lightning rod,” says Rosenblum in regard to the architect. “He has a lot of admirers. He has a lot of admirers among his students. And he has a lot of admirers among people who want to see and experience intellectual content in architecture.”
But, as Rosenblum is quick to point out, “He also has detractors. He'd be the first person to tell you that. He's a love it or dislike it kind of architect, but that is his intention.”
Take for example, the Glass Lofts, located on Penn Avenue in Garfield, just opposite the Pittsburgh Glass Center.
With contrasting bright green and corrugated metal exterior walls above masonry block, the building strikes a powerful urban presence. The building looks something like a Transformers robot lounging on a hillside, with bulging cubes under upward tilting roofs, and portions where walls appear as if peeled back to reveal openings and balconies.
The result is overtly experiential architecture, with stairways and a bridge providing passages and views through the sloping site.
“It's received a lot of positive press and exposure, but I've also talked to people who don't like it at all,” Rosenblum says. “But he wants to wake people up, do things that are provocative, and he succeeds in that.”
Built between 2007-10 for Friendship Development Associates, the bright green and shiny metal complex is a combination of loft condominiums, artists' studios, and restaurant and retail space.
Documents from different stages of design show this project coming to life. Beginning with basic arrangements of space, they show how the architects increasingly responded to a dynamic site and the possibilities for energetic expression of form.
Of course, Lubetz, and for certain his buildings, are no strangers to Pittsburghers. Not the least of which is the architect's own studio on Craig Street in Oakland.
In 1983, Lubetz renovated the former auto mechanic's shop to become a colorful, distinctive and intellectually challenging headquarters for his practice.
Located near the busy intersection of Bigelow and Baum boulevards, the building is an architect's dream, with freestanding walls, exposed beams and an upside-down staircase on the inside, and on the outside a beautiful collage of concrete forms and pastel colors, which reflect both serious architecture and the pop culture of the 1980s, yet somehow still maintains its attractiveness to this day.
Also quite distinctive in the minds of most Pittsburghers are two projects in Shadyside — Ellsworth I (1989) and Ellsworth II (2000). Separated by a small parking lot, they were completed 11 years apart, but at first blush you wouldn't know it. Both embody architecture as a collision of artistic forces, with different materials yielding similarly pleasing geometric results.
Good architecture that serves the public good is always a win-win. And Lubetz and Front Studio pleasantly surprise in this arena as well.
Begun in 2014, the Sharpsburg Library was formerly a restaurant. In their extensive and transformational addition, the architects used affordable corrugated metal walls to wrap the original structure, creating volumes in primary colors that have the same shade inside and out.
Here Swiss cheese-like portholes puncture a large yellow volume, which angles over the orange reading room at the front of the library and the entrance. A community garden extends from the green room in the back. Other spaces are roughly divided by function — stacks, circulation and reading areas — while maintaining some continuity and flexibility.
“It's very colorful,” Rosenblum says of the building. “It's a very budget-minded building. There is also a lot of spatial experience, a lot of bang for your buck. And it's something that the users genuinely appreciate and enjoy. It's not the architect's conceit, and the people suffer as a result. It's quite the opposite, popular and well used.”
Another library, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill branch (2002-2005), is a readily recognizable structure to most Pittsburghers. Here Arthur Lubetz Associates was asked to enlarge an existing two-story concrete-framed library from the 1970s, which was too small and nondescript to serve its vibrant and growing neighborhood.
In a bold redesign, thanks to a new copper skin and glass walls extending toward the street among numerous other exterior advances, the firm expanded the use of the interior, creating facilities for children and teens while increasing the number of computer terminals, visitor service desks and meeting rooms.
A good number of private projects complete this remarkable exhibit — including an award-winning home addition the architects designed in the Czech Republic built on the masonry ruins of an 18th-century agricultural outbuilding — making for a complete picture of an accomplished architectural practice, and its talented and visionary principal.
“He knows how to do a grand gesture, how to smash things apart when the circumstance demands,” Rosenblum says. “But I think he's also responsive to the strength of historical structures and historical context. He knows when to have a heavy hand and when to have a light touch.”
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at email@example.com.