Pittsburgh’s AIA Awards program concludes this week. Each year, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects invites its members to submit summaries of their best projects, in images and text, to be judged without identifying information by a visiting group of distinguished jurors in the profession. Awards are distributed at a banquet on October 23. An exhibit of participating projects, on display at 807 Liberty Avenue during gallery crawls and events, supplemented by on-line illustrations, precedes the ceremony and makes the work open to public viewing voting (People’s Choice) and comment.
Is the program a remarkable unfolding of drama in local architecture or just a slightly predictable annual reiteration? The program is admirable in some important ways, but I realized at one point that guessing the winners with some accuracy was fairly easy. That never seemed to advance the cause of good design palpably. There are always some good projects and a few firms doing exciting work (when their clients allow it). In general, though, the quality of architectural design in Pittsburgh is not remarkable. There are cities of our size and even smaller where the bar for adventurous and elegant design seems higher than it is here. What we see built in town or presented for awards generally pales before the constant flood of images of architectural projects on the internet at any given second.
This awards program definitely needs to be energized by legitimate and even-tempered criticism. Too much of what gets written in town is from the triumphalist, everything-is-great perspective. This is not useful without frank discussion about areas that need improvement. On the other hand, the flame war style of some anonymous internet commentary has no place either. Even at its most subjective, architecture is rooted in process and technique. There is no point in calling something aesthetically deficient without saying how and why.
The Pittsburgh AIA does deserve significant credit. Public participation in voting and associated activities is more widespread than ever. Projects are made accessible in presentation boards downtown and in images on line. Supporting materials–lists and ballots–are well done. The professional organization has acquitted itself well.
One difficulty is that the awards will always favor the firms that can pay professional dues and hire expensive photographers. Not every excellent architect or project is represented here by a long stretch. Someone should organize an Art All Night-style salon of non-AIA projects at little or no cost to entrants to show a broader variety of work. I recommend a show in which anyone can post up to one, standard size presentation board per project of up to three projects per person. Just a thought.
For the firms and projects that participate in the regular AIA program, some caveats apply. Architecture is an incredibly challenging profession. Finishing a functioning building on time and budget is rife with technical and political hurdles. Plenty of conscientious and reputable firms are doing competent professional work that has acceptable but unremarkable artistic quality. This is not an indictment of their character or integrity. But it is an admonition that plenty could and should do better.
Let’s allow reasonable criticism of work when it is not aesthetically up to par, even if we have disagreements. Some argue that humans made ritual and aesthetic constructions as monuments or burials before they even made shelter, that art actually precedes function in architecture. And art in architecture, when done well, can be one of the greatest sources of value added without additional material cost. (Alternately, it can add value at great material cost).
Let’s dive right in. It’s in the nature of awards programs. Why not go through all of the entries and pick out a handful that look like outstanding designs, telling not just why they are good, but how lesser projects could be better.
Uptown Apartments, by Fukui Architects. If I were a juror, I would give this a top award for design. It is an unapologetically Modern structure that can fulfill its urbanistic obligations of context and access with clarity and proportion, without resorting to kitschy historical form or reference. It has a suitably crisp composition that arranges its necessary functions with a balance of rhythm with rigor. There is a dash of playful color that works with a knowing sense of layered space. These are modulated living spaces, not just boxes of boxes. The compositional qualities that make Modern architecture good are often dependent on nuance and feelings of just-rightness. This project has them to satisfying degrees. The story is incomplete, because we don’t really see the inside, but certain strengths are clear nonetheless.
Glass Lofts, by Front Studio (photographed by Massery Photography). Here is a multi-unit housing project that is also good, though it uses an entirely different approach than the previous one. The architects are willing to use dramatically manipulated geometric form in combination with some layering of space to make a building into an adventurous work of art. It does risk over-reaching in its zealous geometry, but it ends of giving a dynamic performance rather than a mishap.
People tend to love or hate this building, when in fact, it is multivalent. It does have some obvious shortcomings–it seems to lack some necessary finish surfaces. Still, the strengths of its artistry counterbalance them. And it brings the added bonus of having some effective urbanistic turns. It does fit along the street, and it creates some pleasant intermediate public spaces. So much of our architecture tries too little rather than too much. Boldness is admirable (though it requires both talent and process), and we see it in this town far too infrequently. This is a project that grabbed its economical budget by the horns and made the most of it. Likewise, there are varieties of contemporary architecture in the profession that are more sophisticated than this, but we almost never see them in Pittsburgh. This project is visually entertaining; it is also a clarion call to raise ambitions for avant-garde architecture.
RE_FAB Mobile Fabrication Lab by Urban Design Build Studio Architects. Speaking of avant-garde architecture. There is even more to this appealing project than meets the eye. This studio has Carnegie Mellon students design and build a community-oriented project in the course of just a year (ideally). This particular entry puts high-tech fabrication technology (the same kind used to build it) in a mobile trailer to make it available to underserved communities. It is driven by conscience as well as design interest. And it is realized at a sophisticated level.
Still, the aphorism is irresistible. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. This project doesn’t have a hammer, but rather a CNC router, the digitally driven tool that allows you to carve any imaginable curve or angle out of a sheet of plywood. The technology can apply in three dimensions as well, but the flat sheets cut into unique curving shapes to make skeleton of wavy and irregular ribs, are ubiquitous in contemporary architecture, at least in some places.
I understand how the construction market in Pittsburgh does not frequently allow the budgets for adventurous design. But this variety of digital fabrication (this is just one branch of the technology) is sweeping the profession, and industry at large. You can find real world projects making use of it every day. Here are students using this technology under the direction of an industrious and ambitious faculty member. Why on earth aren’t other professionals using it in projects in this awards program and in this town? There is a glaring shortage of digital technologies in Pittsburgh architecture projects generally.
Speaking of glaring absences, I am not including any university campus buildings here. There are a number of projects in the awards program that look professionally done and smoothly wrought. But university buildings around the country are seeing some truly adventurous and genuinely artistic design innovations. The Gates Hillman Building at CMU, though admittedly overboiled in some respects, won a national AIA award for a complex and ambitious design. (And architects Scogin Elam have done more controlled work on campuses around the country). What we see on these boards does not reach that level of amazing work that spills out of design journals and websites every day.
Likewise, residential designs. There are some pretty good and pleasant projects spread around here. One is a tasteful essay in an early Frank Lloyd Wright mode. And the other one an addition that is a crisp modernized echo of the adjacent barn. But they are not bold and geometries wrought with adventurous palettes of material that characterize the best work in the profession. I want to see projects in Pittsburgh that rival the ones, not just in New York or LA, but in Kansas and Michigan.
There are plenty of caveats to end with. There are good architects around who have not submitted work this year. There are architects who have submitted admirable works in previous years but not quite so much this year. There are works that are better in person than on the presentation boards, so I suspect.
To end on a good note, there is IKM’s Erie County Medical Center Outpatient Center (photographed by L.V. Cave). Here is a design that grabs volumetric composition and tectonic construction to make a visually engaging project. A potentially boring medical building is a real piece of architecture with a bold profile, tectonic logic, and some elegant details.
If more firms follow this approach and make buildings that are more colorful, dynamic, and ambitious than their previous go round, then the criticism of local architecture will be a series of rave reviews in no time.
Charles Rosenblum is a critic and scholar of the built environment and visual arts. He has earned degrees, taught university courses, and won journalism awards in those fields. He recently appeared on television, in a documentary on architect Henry Hornbostel that was largely based on his doctoral dissertation research. Charles continues to do free-lance writing for local and national publications. Follow him on twitter @Charlzr and charlzr.tumblr.com.