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March 22, 2001

3 new Nationality Rooms

Three more Nationality Rooms — Filipino, Turkish and Latin American/Caribbean — are in the early planning and fundraising stages, and could be dedicated as early as 2008.

Among the Cathedral of Learning's 26 existing Nationality Rooms, the conception-to-completion record was set when the Indian Room opened in January 2000, eight years after initial fundraising began. "These three new rooms might actually beat that record," said E. Maxine Bruhns, Nationality Rooms Programs director. "Each of the committees [planning the rooms] really has its act together."

Nationality Rooms celebrate the heritages of Pittsburgh's ethnic groups. Funded by those communities and often designed by renowned foreign architects, these functioning classrooms recreate cultural periods prior to 1787, when Pitt was founded.

On Tuesday, architects serving on the Filipino, Turkish and Latin American/Caribbean rooms planning committees met with Bruhns and Park L. Rankin, Pitt senior manager of architecture.

Omer Akin, an architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said the Turkish Room committee is considering designs based on rooms in traditional Turkish homes. The style is characterized by a central carpet, a fireplace, seating all around the room, and plenty of windows jutting out toward the street. "These rooms often had a wooden centerpiece in the ceiling, purely for decoration but reminiscent of the circular tents that Turks originally lived in" as a nomadic people in Central Asia, said Akin.

For centuries (including the era of Pitt's founding), the Turk-dominated Ottoman Empire led the Islamic world, but modern Turkey is resolutely secular. Does that present a conflict in designing the Turkish Room?

"Turks are primarily Muslim, but the notion we have for this room is that it will refer to Turks in a secular way, not by excluding their religious artifacts and practices but by focusing on the traditions of the Turkish-style house," Akin replied.

Before converting to Islam, Turks were Buddhists. "But even then, they were nomads and lived in tents," he noted.

Filipino Room committee member Warren T. Bulseco, an associate with W.T.W. Architects, said his committee is doing a lot of research to define the "true culture" of the Philippines, a land heavily influenced by the Chinese and Spanish.

"We don't have a design per se at this point," he said. "We have conceptual ideas for the room such as integrating indigenous materials from the Philippines, including volcanic stone, sea shells and different types of plant material such as bamboo and rattan."

Room planners also hope to integrate a motif of islands and water, Bulseco said. Something that won't be found in the room: nails. Traditionally, Filipino home builders used machetes and knives to cut and carve wood, and all joining was done by hand.

The Filipino and Turkish rooms each will focus on a single nationality. Designers of the Latin American/Caribbean Room face the daunting challenge of representing, in one room, 24 nations and a bewildering range of cultures, including Spanish, Portuguese, African, and native Aztec and Incan.

Ironically, the Latin American/Caribbean Room committee is the only one of the three so far that's produced a drawing of the room it has in mind. See page 1.

Based loosely on a classroom at Lima's University of San Marco, founded in 1575, the room would feature an elaborately carved, central table and 24 choir stall-like seats, each representing a Latin American or Caribbean country. But rather than carving a country's name above each seat, the seats would bear the names of poets from those lands. The room would feature two murals depicting the Spaniards' first encounters with the Incas and Aztecs in Peru and Mexico, respectively.

"We have a group of historians, professionals and students working to define what exactly is meant by 'Latin American,'" said Victor Bectran, an architect with L.D. Astorino Associates, who drew the room sketch.

In the early years of the Nationality Rooms program, fundraising efforts usually didn't get more sophisticated than pierogi sales and pleas for donations from ethnic societies, said Bruhns. But fundraising for the Latin American/Caribbean, Turkish and Filipino rooms combines the usual appeals to ethnic pride with modern development techniques such as pitches to local corporations that invest in those parts of the world. Contributors to the Latin American/Caribbean Room can even donate online through the website of Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies.

Bectran said the size of Pittsburgh's Latino community is difficult to estimate because Latin America and the Caribbean include so many disparate peoples — but it is safe to say that the city has a tiny Latino population compared with many other U.S. cities. "It's a culturally sophisticated community, though, very involved in traditions," he said.

Pittsburgh's Filipino community includes only about 500 families, Bulseco estimated. Akin said his committee estimates the local Turkish community at about 300 families and an equal number of students. (That's not including Arabs, Bulgarians and others whose ancestors emigrated from the Ottoman Empire and were collectively called "Turks" when they arrived in America, Akin said.) Many local people of Latino, Turkish and Filipino descent are well-to-do professionals and businesspersons, the architects said — people eager for recognition of their cultures, who see a Nationality Room as symbolizing their contributions to this city and nation.

Bulseco said, "We see this as a contribution to the infrastructures of Pittsburgh and the University, and a way to bridge the gap between Filipino, Latino, Turkish and American cultures."

"Architecture speaks to people in a way that is not so obvious but is perhaps more fundamental than other forms of communication such as poetry and music," said Akin. "When you enter a Nationality Room you're subsumed in the architecture, and for that moment you become one with that culture."

— Bruce Steele

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