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October 24, 2002

Weighing in on Pitt’s eclectic architecture

Who is Terence Smith?

Pitt’s new Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory is a modernist critic, author, scholar and teacher with an international reputation. “Terry brings with him a global perspective on the interaction of culture and politics and art,” says Franklin K. Toker, a fellow professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture.

Okay, who is Franklin Toker?

“Among other things, Frank is the world expert on the architecture of Pittsburgh, absolutely no question,” Smith replies.

“Unlike Terry, whose work deals largely with contemporary architecture, I’m only intermittently a critic,” adds Toker. “I’m more a scholar of architecture. I mean, Michelangelo is not going to mend his ways because of something I might write about an error he may have committed in 1555.”

Following Pitt’s dedication of two showpiece buildings this year — the Petersen Events Center and Sennott Square — the University Times invited Smith and Toker on a tour of Pitt’s architecturally eclectic campus. They shared their insights recently with Assistant Editor Bruce Steele.

The Cathedral: Gazumping Downtown

Terry Smith’s office window in the Frick Fine Arts Building offers a panoramic view of The Carnegie and Pitt’s lower campus.

Dead ahead lies the Schenley Plaza parking lot, which Smith calls “an absolute aesthetic disaster. To put a car park in the middle of what could have been a beautiful, green, walk-through plaza — it’s like filling the Grand Canyon with a shopping mall.”

Sweeping his gaze to the left, Smith sees Hillman Library and Posvar Hall, neither of which pleases his aesthetic senses either. But overshadowing these buildings and everything else in Oakland is, of course, the Cathedral of Learning, nicely framed in Smith’s window.

The Cathedral fascinates Smith.

By constructing a 42-story educational tower miles uphill from Downtown Pittsburgh, Pitt and its visionary leader, John Gabbert Bowman — the University’s chancellor from 1921 to 1945 — “totally gazumped” Downtown, Smith observes.

“Gazumped,” he quickly explains, is a colloquialism from his native Australia, meaning to trump the competition. “With the Cathedral of Learning,” Smith says, “Bowman combined a structure that normally symbolizes commerce, the skyscraper, with that other great vertical structure, the Gothic cathedral. He deliberately created a powerful symbol that set itself against the common image of Pittsburgh as an industrial environment.”

Smith’s departmental colleague, Franklin K. Toker, points out that Bowman and architect Charles Z. Klauder originally envisioned a Cathedral of Learning 52 stories high, which would have been 27 stories higher than Downtown Pittsburgh’s tallest skyscraper at the time, the Oliver Building.

“In the mid-1920s, when Bowman and Klauder were proposing a 50-story Cathedral, it could have claimed to be the highest building in the world,” says Toker.

Modeled after New York City’s art deco Rockefeller Center and the Gothic-style Chicago Tribune Building, the Cathedral of Learning is not the only skyscraper in higher education. Others can be found in Montreal and Moscow, Toker notes. But Pitt’s Cathedral was the first of its kind, he says.

“Bowman was from Nebraska, and when he came here to Pittsburgh, Nebraska had just finished building a skyscraper state house. The Cathedral of Learning expanded the skyscraper model to the area of education. Nobody had thought to do that before — for lots of good reasons, including the difficulties of getting students up and down to their classes.”

Smith interjects: “The value of skyscrapers for commercial life is that you can put mechanical services at the bottom and the people running the company at the top. In the middle stories go all of the people who do roughly the same kind of job — clerks, information processors and the like.

“But that’s not how universities work. A university is a place where you should be encouraged to think differently, and the Cathedral’s form doesn’t encourage that. You’re forced to think against the building, in terms of its form. That’s my one real concern about adopting a skyscraper structure for a university building.”

Traditionally, Smith and Toker point out, U.S. college campuses were modeled on European villages (a community of scholars) and the Athenian Acropolis. When Pitt relocated from the North Side’s Observatory Hill to Oakland in 1909, the University’s “Acropolis Plan” called for construction of 30 buildings stretching across the hillside now topped by Pitt’s Petersen Events Center and the VA Medical Center. This ambitious vision later was abandoned, although Pitt did construct a number of the buildings called for in the Acropolis Plan, including Pennsylvania and Thaw halls.

“With the Cathedral of Learning, I think Bowman made a major innovation on the level of basic form,” Smith contends. “Instead of viewing the University as something horizontal, laid out on the ground like an interactive mini-city, the Cathedral borrowed the skyscraper model of a city put up vertically.

“Whether or not it works as an academic building from a practical point of view, I can’t say,” Smith adds. “I don’t work in the Cathedral.”

Whatever its functionality, the Cathedral of Learning succeeded brilliantly as a beacon and in creating an internationally recognized symbol for Pitt, the professors agree.

Smith says: “Just as the Woolworth Building was pictured in advertisements and in Woolworth stores all over the world, the Cathedral became the ‘brand image’ for the University of Pittsburgh. It still is.

“The other thing about the Cathedral is that it also serves as a destination,” Smith continues. “In that sense, it’s a bit like the Eiffel Tower, which was a brand image for Paris’s International Exposition but also a destination place that you arrived at and departed from. You could measure your journey around Paris in relation to how close to or distant you were from the Eiffel Tower.”

For Pittsburghers, the Cathedral of Learning also serves as a symbolic destination point, according to Smith. “Whatever college or university you may end up attending, the Cathedral is the place that people around here associate with getting an education,” he says. “This is the place you aspire to. Every working man and woman wants their children to get an education. For generations, that has meant, symbolically: Go to the Cathedral.”

Toker compares the Cathedral favorably to its glass-sheathed, neo-Gothic counterpart Downtown: PPG Plaza, a six-building complex centered on a 40-story office tower. Philip Johnson, the plaza’s primary architect, borrowed his design partly from the Cathedral of Learning and Pittsburgh’s other famous tower-dominated building, the Allegheny County Courthouse.

“I think the Cathedral is a much more successful as a sky-piece than PPG Plaza,” Toker opines. “Both buildings can be seen from miles away and they’re both striking in silhouette. But one-eighth of a mile away, the Cathedral becomes a different building. You catch its subtleties, its gradations. And it’s hugely significant where you’re viewing it from.

“The Cathedral presents its business side to Downtown; viewed from that side, it’s almost entirely straight and flat. But seen from Carnegie Mellon University, the Cathedral presents exceedingly rich textures, as if to say to its rival university: ‘You may be the techies, but we know about intellect and humanity here.’ And then, close up, the Cathedral grounds are full of squirrels and western Pennsylvania flora and fauna. It’s as if the Cathedral is three different buildings, depending on where you view it from.

“But PPG doesn’t have those two extra buildings,” Toker says. “From a quarter of a mile away you see exactly the same tower that you saw from a mile away. And from up close — well, there’s really no reason to get close up at all, aesthetically speaking.”

Smith joins in: “I agree with Frank that there’s very little depth and subtlety in Philip Johnson’s work. He’s kind of a two-idea guy. It’s typical of him that he would go around a city, picking up on two or three of the best existing architectural images and then combining them in some neat, up-to-date way.”

A layman’s naïve question: Is the Cathedral of Learning beautiful?

Toker chuckles. “At this point,” he says, “it’s like asking: Does 10 seem to be about the right number of commandments? The Cathedral is such a potent symbol, it’s almost beyond questions of beauty.”

Smith observes: “The really great buildings aren’t necessarily beautiful. In architecture, beauty is a lesser quality than either spectacular originality or embodying a new way of living, achieving a positive extension of what it means to be human.”

The Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center are all “a bit less than beautiful,” Smith believes. “But they were innovative and powerful and incredibly influential. The reason that the Parthenon and the whole Acropolis in Athens were so staggering is that they proposed an utterly different way of living. One building after another there proposed a different form of worship for a different group of people, and it got more complex and subtle as it went along, more refined and developed. That’s one reason why we keep going back to that site for inspiration.

“Very few buildings ever reach the highest standard for an absolutely magnificent building, which is a standard that is way beyond beauty. Whether the Cathedral of Learning achieves that standard — well, I’m not sure about that.”

Toker, who is writing a book about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, says: “Wright is, perhaps, an overly admired person, but I liked his charge to architects: Can you say when your building is finished that you have improved on what was there before? In the Cathedral’s case, it replaced tennis courts, so it certainly met [Wright’s] charge.”

Despite Wright’s dismissal of the Cathedral of Learning as the world’s biggest don’t-walk-on-the-grass sign, the skyscraper did wonders for Pitt’s self-confidence, says Toker. “With this one building, the University significantly upgraded its self-image.”

Smith asks Toker, the Pittsburgh historian, whether the world took Pitt more seriously after the Cathedral was built.

Toker smiles. “This University,” he says, “has never had a problem making the world take it seriously — just Pittsburgh.”

‘A theme park of replica buildings’

When Smith began exploring Oakland architecture after his arrival this fall, he soon noticed how familiar it looked.

His academic home, the Frick Fine Arts Building, was meant to suggest an early Renaissance Roman palazzo. Smith recognized the Heinz Memorial Chapel as a neo-Gothic updating of the 13th century Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. CMU’s Mellon Institute (with its 60 Ionic limestone columns, said to be the largest solid stone columns in the world) is a local version of the U.S. Treasury Building, while Pitt’s Alumni Hall, the former Masonic Temple, is another Greek revival giant.

“It quickly occurred to me,” Smith says, “that if you look at the range of architecture surrounding the Cathedral of Learning, it’s kind of a theme park of replica buildings, representing the architecture of the past speaking to the present.

“This is clearly not a campus that has wanted or commissioned or accepted buildings of the moment, with maybe a few exceptions like the Petersen Center,” notes Smith. “The people running this University would fall into the counter-modernist camp, in the sense that they obviously believed that the present doesn’t have all of the answers. Whereas, the extreme modernist viewpoint is that the past has to be transcended and obliterated.”

While Heinz Memorial Chapel and Frick Fine Arts are among Pitt’s more beloved buildings, Toker isn’t a big fan of either.

Of the former, he says: “I’m hugely grateful that the Heinzes’ money was there and that the thing got built. I don’t think it’s a stellar achievement, artistically. I’m just grateful for its existence socially. I mainly go there for concerts. I’m left cold by the statistical bragging about the chapel, such as the fact that it reportedly has the highest stained-glass windows in the world.”

When visitors carp about Pitt’s failure to embrace cutting-edge architecture, Toker points to the Frick Fine Arts Building, built during the 1960s. “I tell people, ‘Well, if Frick Fine Arts had been up to date architecturally, it would have been a clone of Hillman Library, wouldn’t it?’ That backs people up!” Toker says, with a laugh.

Despite his modernist preferences, Smith likewise has little use for Hillman Library architecturally. “That’s the building that totally intrudes on the character of the ones around it — the Cathedral, the William Pitt Union, The Carnegie. If you wanted to be generous, I guess you could see Hillman as an early 1960s version of the Mellon Institute.”

Toker points out that the library’s elaborate base and outside stairs are almost identical in size to the stones used to build The Carnegie. “It’s your standard little bow” to a venerable nearby building, Toker says.

“The Hillman Library,” Smith pronounces, “is dull as ditchwater.”

Toker reserves his venom for Hillman’s neighbor, Posvar Hall.

“If a building can’t do anything else, at least it should let people find the elevators inside. And Posvar Hall didn’t even get that right.”

To Toker, the building formerly known as the Forbes Quadrangle symbolizes “a real fortress mentality. It’s a relic of the 1960s, the time of sieges and student takeovers of campus buildings. It’s this campus’s great monument to [former Chancellor Wesley] Posvar, for whom it was, not coincidently, named. In terms of its design, it’s probably most closely linked to the F.B.I. Building in Washington, D.C.”

Toker says he once mistakenly referred to Posvar Hall as “that poured-concrete building” during a conversation with a Pitt architect, who corrected him: Actually, most of the building’s exterior is limestone.

“Well, that’s how hideous a building it is,” Toker says, laughing. “It’s made of costly limestone and can’t even project that fact.”

The Pete & Sennott Square: Underwhelming

At the base of the steps leading up to the Petersen Events Center, Toker and Smith stand transfixed by the gigantic wedge that juts out of the building’s right side.

Shouting over the roar of buses and trucks climbing DeSoto Street (popularly called Cardiac Hill when Pitt Stadium still stood where The Pete is today), Smith muses: “This wedge, it’s like putting a piece of furniture in the middle of your living room that says: Come sit on me. Likewise, this sharply angled wedge says: This is the corner of the Petersen Center.”

In contrast, the rounded side of nearby Scaife Hall lamely “retreats” from the corner of Terrace and DeSoto streets and disappears down the hill, according to Smith. And, across DeSoto Street from Scaife Hall, there’s nothing but the rear of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic’s garage and a bit of lawn.

“Parking garages are necessary and no one is going to love them,” Toker observes.

“But that one,” says Smith, gesturing toward the Western Psych garage, “really takes over the whole corner.”

Toker is more offended by what he calls “the useless bit of uninviting greenery” near the garage. “It’s obvious that not a great deal of thought has been put into this area,” he says.

At least the Petersen Center’s wedge has two things going for it, says Smith: “It claims the corner and you can see it from Fifth Avenue. Otherwise, all you would see when you glimpse up the hill from Fifth Avenue would be this vague glass façade.”

“It’s the Petersen Center flexing its muscles,” Toker says of the wedge. “Clearly, it’s not meant to serve any functional purpose. What’s my first reaction to this building? Well, somebody was fairly witty to put this gigantic spread of stairs here. It’s really laying things out for a huge party.”

Entering the Petersen Center, Toker is…underwhelmed. “‘Barren’ is the first word that comes to mind,” he says. Beyond that, Toker decides that as “a University loyalist” it would be inappropriate for him to pick on what he calls “the administration’s newest baby.”

Toker also fears that Pitt students might wrongly conclude that he is questioning their needs for spacious workout facilities and a new basketball court, both of which the Petersen Center amply provides.

So, it’s left to Smith, the newcomer to Pitt, to assess The Pete in detail.

After riding the escalator to the facility’s first terrace, Smith looks down at the huge atrium with a roaring Pitt Panther head emblazoned on the floor. He tries to picture thousands of basketball fans streaming into the building…but all Smith can see are “unbelievable volumes of non-useful space,” he says.

“Don’t forget, there’s no point in walking straight ahead for most of the people who will be coming into the Petersen Center,” Smith notes. “Most people will immediately take these side escalators to get up here where we’re standing, which they must do to enter the basketball arena. So, that huge atrium isn’t really functioning as useable, inviting space. When you enter this building, there’s really nothing to look at. We don’t understand how the building is absorbing us.

“Why couldn’t it have been designed so we could look down into the food courts” located up on the first terrace? Smith asks. “At least you would be seeing life, people socializing. All I saw when I entered this building was this massive amount of empty space, closed offices and escalators.”

Smith, the Aussie, contrasts The Pete with Sydney’s Opera House. “When you go toward your seats in the various halls of the opera house, you go around the sides of the building. You walk up these long, graduated steps — or you can take the elevators, of course. Everywhere you look, you see wonderful views of Sydney.

“And the Sydney Opera House is full of fantastic details. Here at the Petersen Center, the detail work is all beige-on-beige-on-white. That’s your range. I mean, it’s about as exciting as the color choices at The Gap!”

Smith and Toker move on to The Pete’s 12,500-seat arena. Their visit is perfectly timed. Inside, from a podium at center court, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg is addressing Pitt freshmen and their families. No sooner do Smith and Toker settle into a pair of blue seats, up in the arena’s nosebleed section, than the chancellor begins reading from Toker’s book, “Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait.”

“The chief distinction of Pittsburgh is work,” Nordenberg says, quoting Toker. “As surely as Paris represents glamour, Dallas wealth and Rome la dolce vita, so Pittsburgh stands for industry and production. Pittsburgh is the classic overachiever among American cities….”

Later, in the hallway outside the arena, Toker says, almost mournfully: “I would have loved for the outside of this building to reflect some of the excitement you’ll see when you go to a basketball game in that arena. I would have shaved a corner off an inside wall so that you would catch a glimpse of those blue seats and that beautiful hardwood floor as soon as you entered the building. That is what’s happening at the Petersen Center, what goes on in that arena. And, by the way, there would be nothing wrong with seeing the workout rooms from outside of the building, either.”

“Like they do at the Gold’s Gyms,” Smith chimes in. “They deliberately put their exercise machines up near the windows at Gold’s so you can see what’s going on inside and be attracted to it.

“I agree with Frank. The main event here is what goes on in the basketball arena, but you get no sense of that excitement from the outside of the Petersen Center or even as you enter the building.”

Dodging raindrops and rush- hour traffic, Toker and Smith walk downhill to Forbes Avenue to visit Pitt’s other, major new building: Sennott Square.

They walk up the building’s side ramp and enter the smallish lobby, which they explore for a few minutes. Then Toker describes a course in which he lectures about American architecture in the post-Civil War “Gilded Age” — an era characterized, he says, by “curious gigantism and dwarfism” in buildings commissioned by patrons with more money than taste.

“I’m reminded of that trend by this lobby,” which impresses him and Smith as being unimpressive, to put it mildly.

Outside, Smith contrasts Sennott Square with Pitt’s School of Law, located directly across South Bouquet Street. “The law school is an unmistakably academic, institutional building,” Smith says.

“It’s clearly part of the University, which is fine; I’m not criticizing the law school. I’m just contrasting it with Sennott Square, which succeeds in blending in with a busy commercial street. At the street level, you see storefront space for shops. Above that, you have this light orange brick building that looks like an apartment building, even though there are academic offices and classrooms inside.”

Toker compares Sennott Square — unfavorably — with the Yale Center for British Art, the final building designed by renowned American architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974). Like Sennott Square, Yale’s center was constructed on a busy commercial street. It similarly features storefront space at street level, but above that is a handsome museum exterior, Toker says.

“With Yale’s center, the street level space is fairly mundane and the upper stories are noble-looking. Here [at Sennott Square] we have a funny kind of inversion: The street-level storefront space gets the noble-looking gray marble and the educational floors get the factory brick. Above the street level, this looks inescapably like an ordinary apartment building, as Terry said.”

“This really is an inconsequential building, isn’t it, Frank?” asks Smith.

“Well, it could have been better handled,” Toker says. “It’s not an offensive building, anyway.”

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 5

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