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September 11, 2003

CL retains its power to inspire

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The Cathedral of Learning may be celebrating the 80th anniversary of its dedication, but it still embodies the power literally invested in it by masses of schoolchildren donating their milk money for its construction — and the power of all that Pittsburgh steel through which it took shape.

JoAnna Commandaros, studio arts lecturer who creates sculptures and installations with local steel, says the Cathedral acted in 1937, and still acts today, as a community builder. These images by Pitt photographers Mike Drazdzinski, Aimee Obidzinski and Monica Synett of the University Center for Teaching and Learning show the Cathedral from many angles, in many lights and seasons, and thus many moods, but all show its continuing power to inspire.

For one, it is monumental simply because of its height, but also monumental in reflecting our aspirations in its form. It is a cathedral that urges us to worship the god of learning.

“We can imagine that we are going up there,” Commandaros says of the building’s heights. “It speaks to the possibility of higher learning, to ascension” — both literally and figuratively.

Seen from below, the Cathedral naturally creates such feelings, as if one were faced with a mountain and challenged to climb it. Inside the first floor, you do “feel smaller than God,” she says — one of the traditional functions of a cathedral. “When we go up to the top of the Cathedral and look out, we get a sense of ourselves,” she adds: a higher sense.

Looking out the Cathedral’s upper floors makes one feel not smaller but more powerful, and more enlightened, she explains. “When you can see your whole landscape, you get a sense of the bigger picture.”

Cathedral of Learning,January 2016,photo essay,stock,

The Cathedral frames the landscape below, showing us views through petal-shaped openings, through latticework and through other window-like forms — including, of course, its actual windows. The Cathedral becomes the frame around a landscape painting of Oakland and beyond, making what we see seem even more significant.

Today we see a new view of ever-shifting surroundings. “How do I take refuge in constant change?” Commandaros asks. The building’s frames never change, and so the Cathedral of Learning is a kind of anchor, she says. “There is something powerful about the strength of this structure … the truth of its material.” It holds us aloft, and aims to broaden our perspective on life.


The community a building constructs can be quite literal. Commandaros recalls living in London as a resident artist and seeking steel for her work. As a woman in the arts, not a construction foreman, she had trouble convincing steel producers to take her seriously until she mentioned the place where she usually lives and works.

“When I said ‘I’m from Pittsburgh,’ they just lit up,” she reports. “These big, strong men just were like, ‘You’re from Pittsburgh? Did you know that Pittsburgh steel built this city?’ All these barriers fell away.” The steel thus became “a beautiful bridge” among cultures, she says. The Cathedral still shows off its Pittsburgh steel connection today, however cloaked in stone ornamentation.

But the main community the Cathedral builds is as an educational institution, of course. “We are the institution as it evolves,” Commandaros notes. “We do not just look at it as a sculpture. We look at it as an institution we inhabit. We can still feel a sense of pride in what it stands for.”

Commandaros recalls conversing with a dean about the effect on the University of President Donald Trump’s recent order stopping travel from seven mostly Muslim countries, and curtailing the immigration of refugees. The dean was facing multiple meetings trying to deal with the executive order’s impact, even though it had been temporarily stayed.

“We’ve got real issues and this is a scary moment,” Commandaros says. “But the University is standing tall on this. When we think of the Cathedral of Learning, we can use that as a symbol, a mirror, a bridge to connect to our ethical mandate that education is for everyone. This is an extreme moment and the Cathedral of Learning standing for all these higher philosophies is really paramount now.”

The Cathedral, as a sculpture, may work as the Greeks intended sculpture to work: as the ideal figure to mirror the image of god in man. Perhaps the arcs of the Cathedral’s strict geometry, pointing toward the sky, are like “the arc of the moral universe … bend[ing] toward justice,” as President Barack Obama used to quote Martin Luther King Jr.

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When the Cathedral has images projected on it, it becomes most contemporary, focusing all of our attention on the same idea. “It feels immediately like a link-up to me,” Commandaros says — the Cathedral as social media, building its list of like-minded friends.

Lighted buildings can be their own art form, practiced most prominently by Krzysztof Wodiczko. They also can be purposefully frivolous — think of holiday light-up nights — “but because of the Cathedral’s symbolism in the Pittsburgh landscape … it adds some gravitas,” she says.

219863,October 26 2016,Fall simages main campus


Cathedral of Learning shots for panoramas, January 2017. 221673

When photographers capture the building from unusual angles — from mid-air, looking skinnier than normal from the side, or in a panoramic shot from below, which severely foreshortens its form — they allow us to contemplate the Cathedral anew, she adds. If the building is isolated in the photo, especially when rendered in black and white, we cannot even be sure when during the past 80 years the picture was taken, unless we peer closely enough to spot street signs beneath it, or squint at the very top — could that be a cell tower?

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“There could never be another Cathedral of Learning built today,” Commandaros concludes — just as there will never be another David chiseled from stone by another Michelangelo. “Our consciousness moves too fast,” she says. “We don’t have the cltemperament for it.”

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Can’t get enough of the Cathedral of Learning? The University photographers can’t either. For more images from
photographers Tom Altany, Mike Drazdzinski, Aimee Obidzinski and Monica Synett, go to

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 1

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