By MARTY LEVINE
As the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC) building heads for demolition next month, we pause to remember a building that gave many viewers — and users — pause.
It was shaped like an escalator, and it was originally supposed to have one, running up the outside to ferry students to proposed dorms. That never happened.
But it served to bring together a unique educational research group in a single complex — sometimes, through its design, even helping to inspire research projects that last to this day.
“I got to walk through it when it wasn’t yet a building,” recalls Lauren Resnick, a new faculty member before the building’s 1974 opening, and eventually LRDC director (1977-2008). “I got to walk around with the leaders of the LRDC and the people who designed it.
“It was a big, exciting experiment on how to improve education,” she said. “It was an odd building as you know, and exactly why the choice had been made to build it there, I don't know. …
“We were working hard to have it be a major place on campus, and in the world. It affected the way we worked. We walked by each other a lot. The ‘we’ involved visitors from around the world. … Some of them brought their suitcases there and slept there at night. It was a place that was very vibrant. It wasn't just a building.”
“My impression from the outside was, ‘Wow! What a cool style,’ ” said current LRDC Director Charles Perfetti. “Old-fashioned cash registers existed then, so that was the image that came to mind for everyone.”
Its New York design firm, Harrison & Abramovitz — an unusual choice for the University at the time — also had designed such varied structures as CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.; Avery Fisher Hall (now David Geffen Hall) and the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York, as well as Pittsburgh’s Alcoa Building (now the Regional Enterprise Tower) and the USX Tower (now the U.S. Steel Tower).
LRDC had a mid-century modern Glaser Auditorium on its second floor and a ninth-floor conference room, which Perfetti remembered as “a spacious, open top floor with great views of the Cathedral. Great for meetings. The long corridors had limited open areas, thus limiting social spaces; but the availability of conference rooms on each floor made up for that and collaboration flourished.”
Kevin Ashley, School of Law faculty member and LRDC member, joined Pitt in 1989. “I developed a deep affection for the building,” he said. “The shape seemed odd to me from the start and still does. The overhang was useful as protection from the rain, as the back end of the second-floor auditorium, and in explaining to visitors where my office was before cellphones and Google maps.”
Despite such affection, Ashley said, the building’s shape and features had their drawbacks. “The offices on the O’Hara Street side were roomy and filled with light, but one could never open a window. Its narrow, deep footprint and multiple floors did not make it easy to interact spontaneously with colleagues. If you happened to be in front of the elevator when the door opened, you might see someone you know from another floor, but that was about it.
“I love LRDC deeply, but I have often thought it was successful in spite of its building rather than because of it.”
On the other hand, LRDC member Diane Litman, of the School of Computing & Information, said the building shaped her work: “I was thrilled when I first saw my office with its wall of windows providing a magnificent view of the lower campus and beyond. An impromptu chat with a colleague while waiting for the elevator (these waits could often be quite lengthy) ultimately led to a research collaboration that is now approaching its tenth year.”
LRDC members who joined from outside the country have vivid memories of their initial glimpse of the place: “I first visited the LRDC building on a typical winter morning in early January 2012,” said Melissa Libertus, a faculty member in Pitt’s psychology department in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences. “Having spent the majority of my academic career on campuses with a homogeneous architecture, I appreciated the heterogeneity of Pitt’s campus and especially the unique style that the LRDC building added.
“The layout of the offices inside the LRDC building definitely had an impact on my work and my immediate sense of belongingness,” she said. “I was fortunate to have an office in the middle of the sixth floor near an open space with a couch and seats. Four other faculty members had their offices immediately adjacent to mine or across the open space from me, creating a great collegial environment. Importantly, we always kept our doors open so we could pop in and ask questions or share news. This was incredibly helpful, especially in my early years at Pitt, as I was trying to figure everything out — teaching, research, mentoring and so much more.
“My research lab was located on the fifth floor of the LRDC building, in a suite that was specifically designed to suit my research purposes. It was very convenient for families to come and participate in research with us. They could park in the adjacent O’Hara Garage where we would meet them and walk them over.
“Once they arrived in our lab, everything was in the same suite — the waiting area with lots of fun toys for children of all ages and all of the testing rooms. My staff had their offices in the back of the suite with a wonderful view of the Cathedral of Learning and all of the graduate students had their offices across the hall from the lab. Again, this allowed for easy communication between all lab members and created a great sense of community on a floor that was rather quiet before my lab moved in. Over the years, as more developmental scientists joined the LRDC, this community grew and expanded across other parts of the fifth floor.”
Timothy J. Nokes-Malach, another faculty member in psychology, said he was struck by “the amazing bright orange ’70s chairs in the auditorium. Those chairs gave a ‘Mork from Ork’ vibe with their colors and egg-like shape. The building had a retro mid-century feel, and I thought that this is someplace I can get some good work done."
In fact, he says, he used the LRDC itself as an experimental environment: “We examined the impact of different room environments with different amounts of space on creative problem-solving tasks. The LRDC was great for that work because we could use a number of different unique spaces including the second-floor auditorium, the ninth-floor conference room and small laboratory rooms.”
“It was hard not to be impressed by its stark, striking and boldly angled presence along O’Hara when I first came across it,” said Marc Coutanche, also a psychology faculty member. “To then find out that this unique structure was also a center dedicated to the science of learning is a dream come true to any scientist of human learning. Of course, the interdisciplinary work of the LRDC will continue apace in its new location, though the symbolism of a single building dedicated to understanding learning is something that will be hard to replace.”
People from the Learning Research and Development Center moved into leased space in the new Murdoch Building on Forbes Avenue in January. The removal of O’Hara Garage next door is 80 percent complete and expected to finish in early August. LRDC demolition will begin in August and be completed in January 2022, according to Scott Bernotas, associate vice chancellor for Facilities Management. The space will be used for a new Recreation and Wellness Center.
“There was a running joke (with some truth),” Coutanche added, “that the lower floors of the LRDC were dedicated to lower-level practical, classroom-based intervention research, and that as you ascended, the research became more abstract and less hands-on, until you reached labs examining higher-level cognition near the top of the center. At times, it even felt like the building itself played a role in guiding our research.
“One day, during my regular journey to my lab on the sixth floor, one of the elevators unexpectedly halted between floors three and four, as it tended to do toward the end of its life,” he said. “I pondered where I had been temporarily halted — at one of the lower 'more applied' levels. Before the elevator restarted, I made a mental note to think about and incorporate more practical implications for classroom learning into my research, and (into) a grant proposal that I was writing at the time. As I look back on the positive reviews I received for that part of the grant, I tip my hat to the LRDC building.”
“There was more there than a building,” Resnick said. “There was a whole community being built up. Some of us miss it.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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