Pittsburgh as a Project: Reimagining the Modern

May 21, 2019

Essay by Rami el Samahy, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo excerpted from their book Imagining the Modern (The Monacelli Press, 2019).


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Alcoa Building. © Clyde Hare. Courtesy of the authors.

Imagining the Modern extends from a research initiative and exhibition of the same title held at the Heinz Architectural Center of the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2014-15. As curators and “architects in residence” for the nine months of the exhibition, Grimley, Kubo, and el Samahy were invited to unravel the city’s complicated relationship with modern architecture and planning through an archival history of the sites, actors, and voices of intervention that shaped the Pittsburgh Renaissance. The material presented in this book builds on these efforts, offering a nuanced view of this crucial moment through original documents, photographs, and drawings supplemented by scholarly essays, analytical maps and diagrams, and interviews with key protagonists of the city’s transformation. Addressing both positive and negative impacts of the era, Imagining the Modern examines what the Renaissance meant then and now, what was gained or lost, and what reengaging these histories might suggest for the future of the contemporary city. In looking to Pittsburgh as a specific case, we seek to reassess the broader narrative of urban renewal in U.S. cities, arguing for a deeper understanding of the complexities and concerns which underlay the evolution of architecture and urbanism.

We shall not be able to say that we have created a modern style until Architects cease to condemn all that is modern, or all that belongs to the past.
—James A. Mitchell & Dahlen K. Ritchey, 1937.1

In 1946, in celebration of the year-long Diamond Jubilee of his department store in downtown Pittsburgh, owner Edgar Kaufmann commissioned the young architecture and planning office of Mitchell & Ritchey to produce Pittsburgh in Progress, an exhibition that offered a visionary projection of the city’s future. Led by Kaufmann as client and James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey as designers—all three among the principal advocates for modern architecture in Pittsburgh after the 1930s—the exhibition imagined a radically new era for a city then shrouded in pollution, threatened with the loss of its industrial base, and in need of significant reinvention following economic and physical stagnation during the Depression and the Second World War. In their accompanying publication, Mitchell and Ritchey described their ambition to provide “an exploration of Pittsburgh’s possible future” that might envision “what the city and its region can become” at the outset of the postwar boom.2 This transformation, they wrote,

calls for a partnership between us and our descendants for the continuous improvement of living….[It] has been prepared on the premise that there will be an expansion in the civilized use of intellect, heart, science, and technology and that the atomic age will be one of construction.3

The following year, the newly formed Allegheny Conference on Community Development (ACCD) issued a publication of similar format, titled Pittsburgh: Challenge and Response. In explaining its mission, the ACCD compared its ambitions for postwar Pittsburgh to the democratic origins of the U.S., arguing that large-scale redevelopment was both urgently needed and crucial to the city’s future. Pittsburgh’s environmental and urban problems, according to the Conference, required visionary thinking at a scale commensurate with

“the genius of our country which has been its love of progress, its restless explorations, its unwillingness to relax in the smug worship of things as they are. Each generation of Americans has gone farther, and produced more, that than which came before it. The broad sweep of the Conference program can be found in its profound acceptance of the inevitability of change.”4

Together, these parallel documents marked out the breathtaking ends of urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh as well as the means by which this change would be effected. Both initiatives were driven by private interests in alliance with government: companies with leadership invested in the economic welfare of the city and determined to improve it. These corporate leaders sought out the talents of architects, planners, landscape architects, and engineers to help them envision a city renewed, one that was advertised to members of the public and elected officials alike as a necessary path toward a desired future. Viewed from the present, both documents reflect the great divide between that era and ours in terms of the power of architecture and planning—real and perceived—to reshape the built environment. What is today regarded as hubristic was, at the outset of Pittsburgh’s redevelopment, seen as both idealistic and urgent.

Imagining the Modern revisits the complex history of urban change that followed pronouncements like these, during the period that came to be known locally as the Renaissance and elsewhere as the urban renewal era. An ambitious program of revitalization in the 1950s and ‘60s transformed Pittsburgh and quickly became a model for other U.S. cities. Politicians, civic leaders, and architects worked together through sweeping local and federal initiatives that aimed to address the social, economic, and environmental problems that confronted the postwar city. This era of superlatives has often been identified with visionary mayors and business leaders, powerful urban planning authorities, and architects and designers of international as well as local renown.5 Yet Pittsburgh’s progress also included less-well known designers, writers, photographers, and community groups who played important roles in envisioning, projecting, and contesting the modern project from their particular vantage points. The result was a contentious legacy of intervention whose social impacts continue to be debated, but whose buildings and landscapes remain among the most powerful examples of modern architecture and urbanism anywhere in the U.S.

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Aerial view of the U.S. Steel Building during construction, 1969– 70. © Detre Library & Archives, Sen. John Heinz History Center. Courtesy of the authors.

Renaissance and Renewal

It is important to revisit the factors that sponsored the optimistic mindset behind urban renewal in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. Uniquely among the protagonists of the World War II, the U.S. emerged with its physical and industrial fabric relatively unscathed, the only industrialized nation whose economic engines were not devastated, but rather vastly empowered, by the conflict. In 1950, the country, containing roughly half a percent of the world’s population, was responsible for more than a third of the world’s economic output.6 By 1960, the U.S. share of the world’s production increased to 40%.7 By this time the gross national product had more than doubled in the fifteen years since the end of the war, growing from $200 billion to more than $500 billion.8

In this climate of postwar prosperity, both civic institutions and private corporations shared a willingness to fund ambitious construction projects following the stagnation of the Depression and the war years, particularly in Pittsburgh, a national industrial center that was actively seeking to reshape its urban fabric and its image. At the same time, the end of the war drove a need to retool the economy, and the nation, for the imperatives of the Cold War as well as for the needs of an expanding population and a booming consumer culture.9 The steel and aluminum industries, both with significant ties to Pittsburgh, redirected their production from the war effort to more domestic concerns, in the process developing new needs for their materials. These included a wide range of new building and consumer products, from the development of new structural possibilities in steel to the use of aluminum for everything from vases to facades.

At the same time, major metropolitan areas faced real and pressing challenges. The need to house returning veterans and their families dominated political discussions and led to sweeping new programs of federal legislation. The American Housing Act of 1949 widened federal subsidies for low income housing, while the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 inaugurated the construction of a 41,000-mile network of interstate highways at a cost of $26 billion, the most ambitious infrastructural project in the nation’s history. Together, these new mechanisms transformed the American landscape, nowhere more so than in its cities. In Pittsburgh, such federal initiatives were preceded by local environmental efforts to clean the city’s heavily polluted air and water and reduce traffic congestion, thereby shedding its national reputation (as well as its persistent image) as “the Smoky City.”10 After the war, the city began to enforce a law passed in 1941 that required factories to use treated coal. Combined with the introduction of natural gas piped into most residential buildings and the transition of regional railroads from coal to gas, these efforts had a profound—and seemingly instantaneous—effect on the city’s air. Not least among the benefits of this transformation was a vastly altered visual landscape, from a dark atmosphere of haze and pollution to a bright setting for luminous new buildings that reflected the economic and material abundance of the renewed city.

In postwar Pittsburgh, national efforts toward urban renewal were bolstered by the unusual combination of civic authorities with a profound desire to meet basic needs and a wealthy corporate class willing and empowered to do so. Indeed, the story of the Pittsburgh Renaissance is deeply interwoven with the city’s attempt to evolve from a wartime industrial powerhouse to a peacetime corporate and civic center. These particularities of Pittsburgh’s situation led it to become one of the first cities out of the urban renewal gate, for better or worse. The city’s transformation in this period includes some of the earliest instances of successful public-private partnerships as well as grassroots efforts, both in support of and in opposition to urban renewal efforts. These complex relationships and competing aspirations were made manifest in the types of projects that were built—including corporate headquarters and suburban office parks, public landscapes, cultural and recreational facilities, university buildings, and housing districts—and in their aesthetic expression, often as a direct reflection of local means of production in steel, glass, aluminum, and brick. Meanwhile the press releases, brochures, newspapers, and magazines that narrated and promoted this construction boom were frequently filled with superlative boasts: Pittsburgh celebrated the world’s first aluminum-clad building (Alcoa), the largest retractable dome (the Civic Arena), and the tallest exposed steel structure (U.S. Steel). In this sense, the Renaissance is what we might refer to as Pittsburgh’s “Dubai moment:” an era when the world’s eyes were turned to the city’s spectacular firsts as emblems of the future metropolis.

Architecture and Urbanism

As architects and historians, our interest in Pittsburgh’s modern heritage stems not only from our appreciation of its buildings and landscapes, but from the experimental spirit that these projects continue to embody. The best products of the era share an expressive confidence that can be found in works built in other cities at the time, but there is a distinctiveness to their formal and material manifestation in Pittsburgh that makes them worthy of renewed attention. Renewal efforts in Boston, for example—also among the cities that received the largest proportion of urban renewal funds relative to their size—were dominated by governmental initiatives to remake the public sphere, often without the support of the city’s wealthy Brahmin class and expressed primarily through robust civic and institutional buildings in concrete.11 By contrast, the Pittsburgh Renaissance was largely wrought in shimmering glass and metal, propelled largely through private interests in consortium with a cooperative local government.

Many of Pittsburgh’s finest buildings of this era were built as national or regional headquarters for industrial corporations. The period is bracketed by Harrison & Abramovitz’s towers for Alcoa (1953) and U.S. Steel (1971), both of which played key roles in reshaping the downtown area known as the Golden Triangle into a symbol of the city’s progress and power. Moreover, both buildings stood as essays in developing a corporate expression by pushing the boundaries of what was technologically possible for the industrial materials associated with each entity. At Alcoa, the architects deployed the company’s products to numerous ends, including the first aluminum stamped panel facade system, the first aluminum wiring and plumbing, and the first combination of acoustic ceiling panels with a radiant heating and cooling system.12 Harrison & Abramovitz made similar use of U.S. Steel’s material expertise to create its corporate headquarters two decades later. Here exposed plates of weathering steel, known as Cor-Ten, snap into an exposed steel frame to create a rugged exterior that recalls the dark atmosphere formerly associated with the city’s steel industries, now chemically absorbed into the building’s surface. Situated on a difficult triangular site, the innovations of U.S. Steel extended to structure, with six massive supporting columns positioned outside the building envelope, and to systems, including the fireproofing of these external columns via a pioneering water-based solution.

Such technical achievements were not reserved for industrial headquarters alone. The external structural diagrid of the IBM Building (Curtis & Davis, 1963), clad in stainless steel, was also the first of its kind. Nor were the city’s architectural and material innovations exclusively the domain of corporations. The Civic Arena (Mitchell & Ritchey, 1961), originally conceived as a home for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Orchestra, boasted the world’s first large-scale retractable dome, comprising nearly 3,000 ton of stainless steel supported by a single cantilevered arm. Innovations also occurred on a more modest scale, as when architect Tasso Katselas designed a non-standard brick for the construction of low-income housing in East Liberty, incorporating a notch in the brick to accommodate the mason’s maximum reach and thereby save time and labor.13

Perhaps the project that best exemplifies Pittsburgh’s eagerness to innovate in this period is Mellon Park Square, designed by architects Mitchell & Ritchey and landscape architects Simonds and Simonds and completed in 1955. The project was the brainchild of Richard King Mellon, then president and chairman of Mellon Bank, who sought to keep Alcoa from moving to New York City by aggregating properties in the Golden Triangle to create a site for Alcoa’s headquarters next to a new public plaza at the center of the city. The design of Mellon Square addressed the change in grade between Smithfield Street and William Penn Place through the first integrated design of a modern park above a garage, accommodating seven floors of parking below grade and lining the exposed edge along Smithfield Street with retail to create a modernist, multi-level open space in the heart of downtown.14 Significantly built through private initiative with the full backing of city government, Mellon Square remains one of the city’s most popular landscapes.15

Beyond the built legacy of the Pittsburgh Renaissance, a number of ambitious unbuilt proposals for the city continue to loom large in the architectural imagination. The most significant of these are Frank Lloyd Wright’s two proposals for the Point Park Civic Center.16 Wright was approached at the behest of Edgar J. Kaufmann in the late 1940s to reenvision the Point following his magisterial design of Fallingwater, Kaufmann’s summer house southeast of Pittsburgh (1934–37), at roughly the same time that Kaufmann commissioned Mitchell & Ritchey to design the Pittsburgh in Progress exhibition.17 Wright proposed an enormous corkscrew ramp, nearly a quarter-mile in diameter, that would provide access to a variety of large-scale cultural and entertainment venues, including an opera house, a planetarium, an aquarium, exhibition halls, and a sports arena. The complex was to be connected via two multi-level bridges to the North Side and the South Side, with a third connection leading to a 500-foot tower at the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers. Following a muted reaction from the Point Park Committee, Wright proposed a second, slightly more subdued version, featuring two cable bridges hanging from a shorter 100-foot tower and retaining the mammoth ramp as a parking podium. This second scheme met with no more success than Wright’s initial design, and the project was abandoned.

Other corporate patrons commissioned visionary schemes to remake vast areas of the city for cultural and commercial uses. In the early 1960s, Harrison & Abramovitz were hired by the Oakland Corporation, a consortium of private interests, to look at the potential of Panther Hollow, a ravine in the heart of Oakland that divided the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museums from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). The firm designed a megastructure that would have filled the entire 150-foot deep gorge to the brim, a mile-long research city linking Oakland’s academic and cultural institutions and expanding Schenley Park with rooftop terraces culminating in a hanging garden at Panther Hollow Lake. In the same years Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) was hired to design a center for the arts on the Lower Hill, envisioned by civic leaders as “a cultural Acropolis.”18 Lead designer Gordon Bunshaft and his team proposed a vast plinth containing an art museum and symphony hall at opposite ends of a landscaped plaza that would have afforded dramatic views of downtown Pittsburgh. A large glass box encasing the symphony hall was flanked by monumental travertine columns supporting a waffle-slab portico and roof, while the three-story art museum was to be enlivened with an undulating roof structure of low vaults.

At the same time, other designers were developing counter-projects for Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods that were extremely different in their methods but no less visionary in their intended impact. In the late 1960s, Community Design Associates, led by Troy West, worked with residents of the Lower Hill to produce “Our Way,” an ambitious response to the city’s official plans for the area. The project strategically located programs in two long buildings on both sides of the existing Our Way Alley, with the larger of these two bars organized in a stepped mass containing multiple types of housing units. A superstructure covering the upper floors was to be planted to provide residents with shading and food. West’s ambitious proposal, developed through innovative methods of community-led design, synthesized concerns for housing, environmental conditions, and food production in a radically modern project that was in many ways the antithesis of the top-down planning that typified other schemes for the neighborhood.

While these neighborhood-scale projects never made it past the planning stages, they had a significant impact on the development of the city as well as on discussions of urban renewal era beyond Pittsburgh. These proposals often helped galvanize support for subsequent plans that did come to fruition, in some cases leading to the critical rethinking of designs that were ultimately built. Moreover, the national attention garnered by these proposals affirmed the importance of Pittsburgh’s transformation as a touchstone for postwar debates on architecture and urban planning, one that provided architects with new models for thinking about large-scale solutions to contemporary urban problems.

Pittsburgh’s postwar architecture and urbanism represented a transformative moment in its history. At a point when the city is currently experiencing a new resurgence in energy, Imagining the Modern is especially relevant to those who seek to understand an era when Pittsburgh was at the center of the world stage. Using the city as a case study, this book frames questions that extend beyond the region, reassessing this important period in twentieth-century architecture at a time when many of its products are under threat across the nation.

Pittsburgh Projects

A compilation of built, unbuilt, proposed, and demolished projects provides a rich history of the city’s transformation during the past century. When overlaid with traces of what was and what might have been, a map of Pittsburgh reveals that the concentration of the era’s efforts was localized to six areas of the city. In each of these neighborhoods, differing circumstances and constraints resulted in urban interventions that varied widely in their methods of planning and execution, as well as in their perceived success or failure.

The building texts in this section were written by Adam Himes, Phillip Denny, Martin Aurand, and Rami el Samahy.

The Point

The aptly named Point, where Pittsburgh was founded and the Monongahela and the Allegheny Rivers converge to form the Ohio River, developed into a major node in the city’s industrial network. By the 1930s, however, pollution, abandoned railroad structures, underused warehouses, dilapidated housing, and periodic flooding had brought the Point to a state of disrepair, and it soon became a focus for government and business-led redevelopment efforts. Following a number of studies, including two bold designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and a Robert Moses plan that placed the Point at the center of an automobile-driven metropolis, civic leaders proposed Point State Park and Gateway Center. The former, a state-designated 36-acre parcel, was designed by an impressive group of local, national, and international landscape architects, architects, and engineers, including Ralph Griswold and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Gordon Bunshaft. Point State Park, which opened in 1974, features an iconic fountain at the Point’s tip. To the east of the park, Equitable Life, a New York-based insurance company that was committed to large-scale investment in Pittsburgh, developed twenty-three acres of land. Gateway Center became a commercial and high-end residential development that epitomized modern life through its architecture, landscape, and planning. Its distinctive modernist buildings included three cruciform towers, the IBM Building with its “diagrid” facade of diamond-shaped panels, and the massive Westinghouse Building. Gateway Center was considered a huge success, and became a model for urban renewal throughout the nation. The Point’s revitalization embodied hopes for a competitive business climate for Pittsburgh and increased employment in the city center, and the potential spread of this growth to other parts of the city.

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IBM Building Pittsburgh, Joseph Molitor, 1969. © Joseph W. Molitor architectural photographs,1935–1985, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University. Courtesy of the authors.

IBM Building
Curtis & Davis, 1963

Formerly the IBM Building, and now fittingly the headquarters of the United Steelworkers, this gem of a building beautifully expresses the structural potential of steel. Each exterior wall is composed of a diamond grid of steel infilled with alternating bands of opaque and transparent glass. Five varieties of steel are used to accommodate differing loads, which are brought to the ground via two concrete pylons on each side of the building. The structural facades free the interior from all vertical supports except the central core, eliminating 200 tons of steel when compared to typical frame construction. This approach met IBM’s desire for flexible office space in the six floors it leased from the Equitable Life Assurance Company (the building being the fifth in the latter company’s Gateway Center development). The regular grid also enabled the prefabrication of large portions of the facades off-site, simplifying on-site construction. Here and elsewhere, IBM cultivated a modernist architectural image under the leadership of designer Eliot Noyes. Curtis & Davis, a noted modernist architectural firm from New Orleans, designed the Pittsburgh building. Structural engineer Leslie E. Robertson, of Worthington, Skilling, Helle & Jackson, designed the exoskeleton, a technical precursor of his designs for the World Trade Center in New York City and Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel Tower.

The Golden Triangle

Pittsburgh’s downtown Golden Triangle is in some respects the most visible aspect of the effort to reshape the city during the Renaissance era. Lead by civic and corporate leaders, this effort included a series of new towers that served as the corporate headquarters for Pittsburgh-based companies and showcased the materials that led to these companies’ successes.

Among these are the Alcoa Building and two U.S. Steel buildings, each designed by Harrison & Abramovitz, then the architects of choice for corporate America. The Alcoa Building used aluminum in new and innovative ways, from the cladding to the insulation to the wiring and plumbing. The second U.S. Steel Building is an architectural masterpiece that evokes not just the client in its bold use of material but the entire city in a formal resolution that celebrates the Triangle’s two grids.

Nearby, the modernist landscape of Mellon Square offered the city a fascinating new prototype: the underground garage disguised as a plaza.

A number of other architecturally notable parking garages were built during this period. Each celebrated the automobile—sometimes with dramatic gestures—and endeavored to provide efficient means of visiting the Golden Triangle by car.

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Workmen installing the first aluminum panel on downtown’s Alcoa Building, Newman-Schmidt Studios, 1951. © Newman-Schmidt Studios. Courtesy of the authors.

Alcoa Building
Harrison & Abramovitz, 1953

The 30-story tower was built as an experimental showcase of the construction applications of its namesake’s product: aluminum. The first building to be clad in stamped aluminum panels, it also served as a test case for aluminum wiring, plumbing, and a combination acoustic ceiling panel and radiant heating and cooling system; even the venetian blinds were made of aluminum. Though designed for the mundane purposes of lightweight economy and ease of assembly, and to demonstrate the insulative and fireproofing capabilities of an aluminum envelope, the building’s facades achieve a high level of refinement. They are punctuated by round-cornered aluminum-frame windows that pivot 360 degrees to allow for cleaning from the interior. As a final demonstration of aluminum’s light weight, the entirety of the four-story glass entry vestibule hangs from two cantilevered girders.

Harrison & Abramovitz were tasked with studying the use of aluminum in building in 1945. They designed an aluminum-faced low-rise office building for Alcoa in Davenport, Iowa, completed in 1949, as a trial run of sorts for the Pittsburgh tower. Alcoa was looking towards a site in Manhattan for the latter; but Richard King Mellon persuaded the company to remain in Pittsburgh by offering Alcoa a prime downtown site and proposing an adjacent garage topped by a public plaza, which became Mellon Square. The square offers excellent views to and from the tower. Alcoa relocated to the Alcoa Corporate Center on the North Shore in 2001. The building then became home to government entities, regional nonprofits and small start-up companies; in 2015, it was converted into residential apartments.

Lower Hill

City planners had eyed the redevelopment of the Lower Hill as early as 1939 with Robert Moses’s Pittsburgh Arterial Plan, which advocated clearing the area in order to develop a more efficient highway system and new housing. The site was the commercial, institutional, and cultural heart of the city’s African American community; yet it was characterized by overcrowding, poor sanitation, absentee landlords, and property values that were falling faster than anywhere else in the city.

Beginning in 1953, local architects Mitchell and Ritchey developed a master plan for Pittsburgh’s “Cultural Acropolis.” In 1956, with backing from several civic leaders and foundations, significant federal funding, and some community support, a large swath of land was cleared for the construction of the Civic Arena, displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses. Claiming the largest dome in the world at the time of its construction, the Arena was originally intended as an all-purpose facility, including a home for the Civic Light Opera and local sports teams. Because its acoustics proved incompatible with musical theater, it remained primarily a sports venue.

Subsequent plans to add the equally ambitious Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), and Washington Plaza, a three-tower luxury housing project designed by I. M. Pei & Associates, did not receive the same support. Displacement and failed relocation efforts left the local community deeply distrustful of further development, while a lack of consensus among civic leaders combined with a slow market for high-end housing in the area. Only one of Pei’s three towers was completed, and the SOM project was scrapped completely. The grand project stalled, and the Civic Arena was left stranded in a sea of parking lots for more than sixty years. With the demolition of the Arena completed in 2012, the midcentury dream of a cultural district adjacent to downtown was finally put to rest.

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Lynette May, Gerri Walker, Shirley Jenkins, and Alberta Thompson hitting golf balls at Washington Plaza putting field, with Civic Arena in the background, Charles “Teenie” Harris, August 1969. © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archives. Courtesy of the authors.

Civic Arena
Mitchell & Ritchey, 1961

The Civic Arena dominated Pittsburgh’s Hill neighborhood for half a century. Initiated by Edgar J. Kaufmann, the department store magnate and patron of legendary residences by Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright, the arena was initially intended to serve as a venue for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, though it was never well-suited for this purpose. Mitchell & Ritchey, the premier architects of the so-called Pittsburgh Renaissance, designed the structure. James Mitchell was the lead designer, and took out a patent on an early softshelled version of the design. After many compromises, the final design featured a massive stainless steel dome, supported by a single cantilevered arm, which provided a clear span across the diameter of the building and was the world’s first retractable roof over a major venue. A complex, automated system allowed for the roof to be opened in under three minutes.

Site clearance for the Lower Hill Cultural Center, including the arena, controversially displaced over 8,000 residents and hundreds of small businesses. Yet the Center’s planned apartments, a Symphony Hall, and other facilities remained almost totally unrealized. Variously referred to as the The Auditorium, the Civic Auditorium, the Civic Arena, the Mellon Arena, and more colloquially as the Igloo, referencing its shape and latter-day role as the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, the arena hosted an extraordinary number of concerts, sporting events, and distinguished visitors. Truly one-of-a-kind, the building’s demolition in 2012 was controversial as well.


The urban redevelopment of Oakland during this period was driven largely by educational and cultural institutions. Chief among them was the University of Pittsburgh as it transformed itself from a regional to a national university by harnessing the energy of the Pittsburgh Renaissance. Although other Oakland institutions built notable modern buildings and additions, including the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History and Carnegie Tech (Carnegie Mellon University after 1967), none rival the University of Pittsburgh’s scope or scale.

Following World War II, the university spread out along the Forbes Avenue and Fifth Street corridor, a trend that only accelerated with the selection of the ambitious Edward Litchfield as chancellor in 1955. In one of his first acts, he retained Harrison & Abramovitz to consult on Pitt’s campus growth. The university quickly committed to twelve major capital projects including the new Hillman Library, Trees Hall (which at the time of completion housed the largest indoor pool in the country), and the Tower Residence Halls (later Litchfield Towers).

When Pitt purchased the land under Forbes Field, the city’s disused but venerable baseball stadium, Deeter Ritchey Sippel produced several versions of a new Forbes Complex Master Plan, of which the Forbes Quadrangle (later Posvar Hall) was completed. Troy West’s practice Architecture 2001 led an alternative effort to repurpose the stadium structure, transforming it into affordable housing and other uses. Other unrealized visions for Oakland included Harrison & Abramovitz’s breathtaking Panther Hollow development. Designed for the Oakland Corporation, a jointly owned, Pitt-dominated consortium of seven institutions, the project proposed a built structure to fill in the entire ravine that sat between Pitt, the Carnegie Museums, and Carnegie Tech. Although soon shelved, it remains a fascinating idea as well as a symbol of the era’s optimism.

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Oakland Research Park (Panther Hollow Project), sectional perspective, Robert Schwartz for Harrison & Abramovitz, c. 1963. © Harrison & Abramovitz. Courtesy of the authors.

Panther Hollow Project
Harrison & Abramovitz, 1963

Stretching for nearly a mile, and filling a ravine as much as 150 feet deep and 900 feet wide, Max Abramovitz’s Panther Hollow Project envisioned a megastructural “research city” linking Oakland’s academic and cultural institutions. The massive complex would have filled the hollow to the brim, and expanded Schenley Park with a series of roof terraces and gardens. Only in the first of three phases—between the Forbes Avenue and Schenley Drive bridges—would buildings have risen above ground level. As the megastructure grew from north to south it was to expand from four to seven levels with transit and utilities buried beneath. Terraced courtyards would have provided ample light to the research facilities, commercial areas, and auditoria within. At its southern end, the megastructure was to fan out around Panther Hollow Lake, creating a public “hanging garden.”

The megastructure would have integrated services and amenities within itself and supported a series of residential developments in the surrounding area. A complex structural system would have enabled the replacement of portions of the complex so that it could remain up to date. The community consortium driving the project, the Oakland Corporation, was dissolved in 1966, and the project was abandoned due to insufficient investment.


The once-prosperous Allegheny City, annexed to Pittsburgh in 1907, featured a civic core with public buildings, a ring of parkland, and an abundance of architecturally rich neighborhoods that would ultimately be preserved and revived. But by the 1950s, the Northside, as it came to be known, experienced high crime rates, traffic congestion, derelict housing, and a population drop of nearly a quarter in a decade.

In response, the city began razing over 500 buildings in the civic core to create the new Allegheny Center, with the support of Alcoa and the federal government. In keeping with the prevailing thinking of the era, thirty-six city blocks were transformed into a new pedestrian super-block surrounded by a one-way, four-lane loop designed to facilitate vehicular traffic. The center included office buildings, mid-rise apartment slabs, townhouses, and a shopping mall with 2,400 parking spaces below. Deeter Ritchey Sippel master planned and designed much of the project. Tasso Katselas added townhouses along the edge (Allegheny Commons East), and the Office of Mies van der Rohe designed an office building (East Commons Professional Building). An international competition chose the design of William Breger, a former employee of Walter Gropius, for the Public Square at the Center’s new heart.

Despite some initial success, the plan proved ill-fated. The traffic circle cut off most of the Center’s commercial space from pedestrian reach of the surrounding neighborhoods, and it could not compete with the ease of vehicular access offered by suburban shopping centers, despite the new road network and mega-garage. As a result, most of the mall’s stores were eventually replaced by back-of-house office space, populated by businesses that did not rely on foot traffic. The housing remains popular to this day, and the public square has been rebuilt along with the surrounding public realm. New owners have injected life into the complex, upgrading systems and bringing new programs and pedestrians back to the area.

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Allegheny Center Commercial Complex, commercial area including “bazaar,” Helmut Jacoby for Deeter Ritchey Sippel, c. 1962. © Helmut Jacoby. Courtesy of the authors.

Allegheny Public Square
William Breger, 1967

In October 1963, Mayor David Lawrence launched an international competition for a new public space intended to serve as a centerpiece for the Allegheny Center development. The square was to replace the historic public square of Allegheny City. The competition jury was chaired by Hideo Sasaki, a modernist landscape architect and chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard. Other members included Henry J. Heinz II; Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill; and Pittsburgh modernist architect Dahlen K. Ritchey.

Over 300 entries arrived, nearly a quarter from overseas; yet the jury deemed just one entry to be acceptable. “Altogether too many of the submitters felt the need to clutter up the square with kiosks, pavilions, pilons [sic] and other self-conscious architectural and sculptural elements,” they wrote. The only design “of high enough quality to receive an award” was submitted by William Breger—a former employee of Walter Gropius and the Chairman of Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture—and a team of students, James Terjesen and Warren Winter. They proposed a stark suite of concrete walls, with benches and steps that punctuated a continuous brick-paved surface and created places for walking and sitting around a slightly sunken pool and fountain.

Breger’s design was built; but the square was underappreciated and badly neglected over time. In 2007, its neighbor, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, organized another competition to usher in its removal, won by Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. The new design, known as Buhl Community Park, filled in the sunken pool, softened hard surfaces with plantings, and strengthened connections with the fabric of the city.

East Liberty

Long considered Pittsburgh’s second downtown, East Liberty was the commercial core of the East End, historically a preferred location for the city’s upper and middle classes. As those with means increasingly relocated to the suburbs in the postwar era, local merchants and other civic leaders asked the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for assistance in saving East Liberty from through-traffic congestion, a high rate of commercial vacancies, and deteriorating housing stock. In 1960, following its successes with the downtown Renaissance and its challenges with redeveloping the Lower Hill, the URA took on its largest redevelopment project to date with an unprecedented amount of community input. Absorbing Gruen’s ideas of reestablishing human-centric social spaces in the face of growing sprawl, through-traffic was diverted via a boulevard looped around the commercial core, with surface parking lots available for those intending to shop. The business corridor was transformed into the East Liberty Pedestrian Mall, designed by landscape architects Simonds and Simonds, with wayfinding and signage by Peter Muller-Munk. Tasso Katselas was tasked to design 1,800 new residential units in a mix of townhouses, mid-rise apartment buildings and towers, including the heroic East Mall Residential Tower that spanned Pennsylvania Avenue.

Built by private developers who benefited from government subsidies for building affordable housing, the new residences changed the demographic of the area, but did nothing to stem the tide of middle-class flight. Many retailers relocated, further contributing to the downward slump. The success of the road loop hinged upon a new highway from East Liberty to downtown, which never materialized, and East Liberty Boulevard became famously known as the “road to nowhere.” Today, most of the built plans of this era have been undone. With the formerly malled streets reopened, residential towers demolished, new housing in place, and the loop road gradually reintegrated into the street grid, East Liberty is again looking at revitalization.

Mas observations 2019 pittsburgh as a project reimagining the modern 08

East Liberty Housing. © Martin Aurand. Courtesy of the authors.

East Liberty Housing
Tasso Katselas, 1965, 1967, 1971

As part of the urban renewal plan for East Liberty, 1,800 new units of housing were constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Designed by Tasso Katselas Architects, the mix of towers, mid-rise apartments, and townhouses changed the landscape of the neighborhood. As a result, the project inevitably came to symbolize all that was wrong with urban renewal, despite its best intentions and interesting use of basic materials in a low-budget endeavor.

The most notable element was the tower that straddled Pennsylvania Avenue, establishing a brick and concrete gateway to East Liberty, and allowing vehicles to pass underneath. This landmark was complemented by a series of low- and mid-rise apartment buildings, arranged in T-shaped plans that helped define the public spaces around them. The brick walls running perpendicular to the long facade of the building are load-bearing; protruding beyond the main elevation, they are expressed as fins that cast shadows along the length of the project. The facades are further enlivened by a playful placement of floor-to-ceiling windows. This playfulness is not arbitrary, but instead determined by the dimensions of the structural bay and its ability to accommodate one-, two-, and three-bedroom configurations.

Despite earning some early accolades from critics and new residents, the projects have been much reviled. In 2005, the towers were demolished, and several of the lower and mid-rise elements as well. Many of those remaining were given face-lifts beyond recognition. The owner recently asked tenants to vacate the premises, and it has since been completely demolished.

1 James A. Mitchell and Dahlen K. Ritchey, “Impressions and Reflections, Part 2,” Charette, August 1937, 2.
2 James A. Mitchell and Dahlen K. Ritchey, Pittsburgh in Progress Presented by Kaufmann’s (Pittsburgh: Kaufmann’s, 1946), 1.
3 Ibid.
4 Pittsburgh: Challenge and Response (Pittsburgh: Allegheny Conference on Community Development, 1947), 3.
5 See Albert M. Tannler, Pittsburgh Architecture in the Twentieth Century: Notable Modern Buildings and Their Architects (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, 2013).
6 Michael French, U.S. Economic History Since 1945 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1997), 199.
7 Peter Dicken, Global Shift: Transforming the World Economy, 3rd edition (New York: Guilford Publications, 1998), 28.
8 French, U.S. Economic History Since 1945, 199.
9 See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). On the reorientation of architects and planners during the Second World War to the anticipated tasks of postwar renewal in U.S. cities, see Andrew M. Shanken, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).
10 See Joel A. Tarr, Devastation and Renewal: An Environmental History of Pittsburgh and Its Region (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005).
11 We have elsewhere described this period of concrete construction in Boston and other U.S. cities as the Heroic era. See Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley, ed., Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (New York: Monacelli Press, 2015).
12 On the material innovations of Alcoa’s aluminum facades in contrast to the glass skins typical of other postwar office buildings, see Thomas Leslie, Saranya Panchaseelan, Shawn Barron, Paolo Orlando, “Deep Space, Thin Walls: Environmental and Material Precursors to the Postwar Skyscraper,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 77, no. 1 (March 2018): 77–96. Following their invention at Alcoa, Harrison & Abramovitz designed similar aluminum cladding systems for corporate clients in other U.S. cities including Republic Bank in Dallas (1954) and Socony–Mobil in New York City (1954–56), though no longer symbolically associated with the products of their respective companies.
13 Rami el Samahy and Chris Grimley, Interview with Tasso Katselas in Imagining the Modern: HACLab Pittsburgh Broadsheet #3 (April 2016), 7.
14 In its combination of a surface-level urban park with a subterranean garage, Mellon Square was preceded by Union Square in San Francisco, a nineteenth-century park to which underground parking was added in 1938–42 after three years of research on the feasibility of its construction. See Gregory J. Nuno, “A History of Union Square,” The Argonaut 4, no. 1 (Summer 1993). Union Square was among Mellon’s inspirations for creating a modern landscape in Pittsburgh that was integrally designed for the first time to combine park space with shops and a multi-level garage.
15 See Susan Rademacher, Mellon Square: Discovering a Modern Masterpiece (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014).
16 On the evolution of Wright’s designs for the Point, see Neil Levine, “The Point Park Civic Center and Traffic Interchange for the Heart of Downtown Pittsburgh, 1947,” in The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 261–333.
17 Wright also designed Kaufmann’s office for his downtown department store (1935–37) in the same years as Fallingwater. See Richard Louis Cleary, Merchant Prince and Master Builder: Edgar J. Kaufmann and Frank Lloyd Wright (Pittsburgh: Heinz Architectural Center, 1999).
18 William Mallet, “Redevelopment and Response: The Lower Hill Renewal and Pittsburgh’s Original Cultural District,” Pittsburgh History (Winter 1992), 182