Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A conversation with the trio of authors behind a new book about the Steel City’s mid-20th-century transformation.
The city attracted great numbers of European immigrants and African Americans from the South between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rewarding its newcomers with just enough economic opportunity to offset a toxic environment and substandard housing. The modern industrial world had brought great wealth to Pittsburgh’s tycoons, but not much for anyone else.
That started to change in the 1940s. Under the leadership of Democratic Mayor David Lawrence and the city’s mostly Republican corporate bosses, Pittsburgh started to think big. A smoke-control ordinance (passed in 1941 and enacted in ’46, after the city’s industrial might was no longer needed for wartime production) cleaned up the air, setting the stage for a Modernist civic realm that included parks, cultural centers, and new skyscrapers.
This was perhaps best crystallized in the vision of a young architecture firm, Mitchell & Ritchey. Its “Pittsburgh in Progress” exhibit, commissioned in 1946 by Edgar J. Kaufmann for the 75th anniversary of his eponymous department store, showed an optimistic version of what Pittsburgh could become by the end of the 20th century. Mitchell & Ritchey would end up designing transformative projects in the city, including Civic Arena— a public project and the largest retractable dome in the world at the time of its opening in 1961—and Mellon Square Park, the first integrated design of a public park above a downtown parking garage, privately funded and given to the city in 1953. The New York-based architects Harrison & Abramovitz added to the city’s skyline and its new reputation for ambitious public-private cooperation by designing the world’s first aluminum-clad tower in 1953 as a headquarters for Alcoa, and the tallest exposed-steel tower for U.S. Steel as its headquarters in 1971.
Not everyone benefited from this new vision—its proliferation of heavy-handed Modernism and demolitions led Jane Jacobs to declare during a 1962 visit that “Pittsburgh is being built by city haters.” Most notably, an estimated 8,000 people were removed from the Lower Hill District, an African-American neighborhood that was featured in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays. Dense, often inadequate housing (blacks were effectively blocked from living anywhere else in the city) was wiped out for what ultimately became Civic Arena and a lot of surface parking. A planned cultural center for the area by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was scrapped, and little was done to rehouse displaced residents, leaving a civic scar that has yet to heal. The arena was demolished in 2012 and the entire site is undergoing yet another renewal plan.
After presenting the story of Pittsburgh’s 20th-century Modernist wave in an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2014, Chris Grimley and Rami el Samahy of Boston design firm OverUnder and architectural historian Michael Kubo have turned their research into a book. Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance (Monacelli, $50) takes what the trio learned from curating the Carnegie exhibition and displays it in a compelling collection of interviews, salon transcripts, and archival materials to make better sense of the built and unbuilt ideas that transformed Pittsburgh. Grimley and Kubo, along with Mark Pasnik, previously told the story of Boston’s urban renewal in the exhibit and book Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.
CityLab recently caught up with the authors to talk about this second urban-renewal story and how it adds nuance to what Pittsburghers typically call “the renaissance.”
What did you take away from your experience doing Heroic that led to something similar for another city?
Michael Kubo: Our interest in the Pittsburgh project as a 2.0 Heroic started when the Carnegie Museum of Art was interested in exploring the urban-renewal era in a way that was similar to what we did with Boston. There had been strangely little attention in Pittsburgh to that era, especially at the museum. For us, I’d say once we were finishing Heroic, we became interested in looking at the broader global phenomena of Modernism and urban renewal, identifying specific cities as case studies to draw out levels of nuance. Looking back at what we had done in Boston as a model to apply to other cities, Pittsburgh made sense for a compare-and-contrast, for a look at broader histories.
Chris Grimley: It seemed to us like Pittsburgh’s urban renewal had a similar process to Boston during the same time period but there were enough differences that enabled us to tell a quite different story.
Rami el Samahy: One of the things that also interested us was the sorts of resources and archives we had access to. We were able to see Pittsburgh’s Modernist project through a series of different lenses: drawings, promotional materials, and national magazines that descended on Pittsburgh. The city was—at the same time as Boston and actually a little before—undergoing major urban renewal and the success of that, the success of Point State Park and Gateway Center, allowed other cities to follow up. There was a moment in the ’50s and early ’60s where the rest of the country was looking at Pittsburgh as a success.
What’s different about Pittsburgh’s renewal history compared to other cities?
Kubo: There’s an emphasized narrative focused on corporations, industrialists, enlightened civic leaders, and their role in what happened. That was very different for us to explore from what we had thought of in Boston as the framework, where federal programs were funneled through a city hall which was empowered to receive and distribute money.
That changed the architectural material expression of what was produced. In Boston, you had government concrete, and in Pittsburgh, you had industrial corporate buildings with materials that reflected the nature of the companies behind them: glass, steel, aluminum. These buildings were signatures for the companies.
I always enjoy coming across Frank Lloyd Wright quotes about how much he hated Pittsburgh. What kind of influence—directly or indirectly—did he have over the way civic leaders wanted to reshape Pittsburgh?
Grimley: I think the presence of Wright’s visionary projects fed into a strong emphasis for us on media, which was at the center of our Pittsburgh project more so than with Boston. Through all of the archives, documents, and the ways which Modernism was realized in Pittsburgh, there was a strong presence of projects like Wright’s that loomed in the imagination.
el Samahy: The fact someone like Wright was interested in working in Pittsburgh [he proposed a civic center for the current site of Point State Park] certainly helped lend increased attention to the city’s efforts. There were far more influential projects happening at the same time, including Mitchell & Ritchey’s “Pittsburgh in Progress,” that looked at what the city could be in the following 50 years. The more fanciful ideas didn’t come to fruition, but it was uncannily like the blueprint for what ended up happening. Those two guys [James Mitchell and Dahlen Ritchey] created incredible works together before splitting up.
Kubo: A lot of the modern projects in Pittsburgh were kicked off by visionary imaginings of what the city could be. There was the Wright scheme [and Mitchell & Ritchey’s] “Pittsburgh in Progress,” but the thing undergirding all of this was the smoke-abatement campaign, which changed the city’s environment and appearance. Imagination at the outset was fundamental to what happened in Pittsburgh compared to a more bureaucratic process that occurred in other cities like Boston.
el Samahy: Pittsburgh was the first out of the gate for urban renewal and Modernism. There was a perfect storm, a real pressing need to reinvent itself after the war. Not only were there public and private interests working hand in hand, including laconic Republican financier Richard King Mellon and the charismatic mayor David Lawrence, but they were also supporting a visionary reimagining of the city.
Who were the most compelling antagonists or outsiders during this period?
Kubo: Because Pittsburgh is one of the first cities out of the renewal gate, that also meant that it’s one of the first places where forms of community advocacy emerged. The voices we ended up identifying and giving space to ended up being different types: journalistic voices, through papers questioning what the impact was on neighborhoods being demolished. Voices of photographers, including Charles “Teenie” Harris, who was heavily responsible for imaging what this meant for communities living around the new spaces. Some [voices] more within the domain of architecture and planning, including Troy West, an activist architect with an alternative vision for what could be done.
Grimley: Troy West’s work on the Hill District was emblematic of an attempt to rectify the heroic things happening downtown with something more community-based and community-engaged, but he was still a white guy trying to assert influence of some kind, no matter how altruistic. So the neighborhood didn’t really want to have anything to do with him.
el Samahy: Troy West was—to use the parlance of the era—an interesting cat. He was countercultural, one of the first people in the country to engage in participatory design, in ground-up efforts. It’s interesting to me that that type of approach is often associated with neo-traditional architectural languages, but [West’s is] unabashedly Modernist.
It seems odd that in Pittsburgh, what’s typically called “Urban Renewal” anywhere else is referred to as “the Renaissance.” Why is that?
Grimley: It was a successful branding campaign! [laughs]
el Samahy: Also, it’s still an era Pittsburgh is generally proud of. The city was building some of the tallest steel buildings in the world; it was Pittsburgh’s Dubai moment. The kind of national and international attention it got at the time has not been repeated, besides maybe the occasional Super Bowl victory. Interesting things are going on now, but it doesn’t hold the same attention.
Kubo: There was a broad public understanding in Pittsburgh that the city was in need of reinvention. The previous era was associated with pollution, dark skies, and the threat of losing its industrial base. The transformation was dramatic—environmentally, culturally, aesthetically—and was seen positively at the time.
The fact that it’s still referred to as the Renaissance was a strong signal to us that Pittsburgh’s story was different and we’d have to treat it accordingly. Whereas Boston sees itself as a 19th-century city with an alien invasion of 20th-century modern architecture, Pittsburgh is much more positive and receptive to Modernism on a lot of different fronts, even if the architectural status of these places is problematic.
Which ideas or projects from the Renaissance best set up Pittsburgh for the 21st-century version of itself?
el Samahy: The first two projects, Gateway Center and Point State Park, changed downtown completely. For Imagining the Modern, we looked at six sites where urban renewal was intense: Point State Park was one of the largest parks in the area and the front door to the city; Gateway Center was [another], as well as the Golden Triangle corporate buildings there. The success of those set Pittsburgh up for other projects.
There is a misunderstood complexity of the Hill—its redevelopment had the initial support of the African-American community, but project leaders were unable or unwilling to provide housing at a necessary rate. That’s different from Oakland, where the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and Carnegie Museum of Art were the main drivers of change in that neighborhood. It’s different from what happened in Allegheny Center, which sat for decades until new ownership revived it; and it’s different from East Liberty, where there’s almost no trace of the urban renewal plan that existed for it—which is ironic, because there were close to 300 public meetings to come up with it.
Kubo: Another major space downtown, Mellon Square in the [Golden] Triangle, was enormously successful, the first Modernist multi-level park with a garage below, integrated into streets with retail. It was the anchor for a series of corporate buildings it bridged, including Alcoa [and] the U.S. Steel Tower, and was a powerful early example of a beloved public space. It gave a sense of a new, modern Pittsburgh.
The Civic Arena—whether it’s about the plan to build it, its design, or its demolition—seems to loom over the city to this day. Is Pittsburgh closer to a consensus over what that project truly represented?
Kubo: No, there’s no consensus. It remains one of the most contentious sites in town.
Grimley: There are unrealized projects [like the SOM-designed cultural center] there that could have made it a much more amenable space. But when you’ve got a barren parking lot surrounding a phenomenal arena then there are problems. To have spent a lot of capital on the Bjarke Ingels Group intervention, only to turn around and revise it with money from the Penguins—it’s not shooting itself in the foot, but it’s not of the same visionary quality that made the city what it is today.
el Samahy: I was living in Pittsburgh during its demolition and people really got heated on both sides of the argument. But it’s gone now. If the removal of the fabric that existed before the arena is a tragedy, I’m not sure removing what came after it makes anything better. There were some very interesting aspects to the BIG project, but I’m not sure the new Gensler scheme is as compelling.
You published four separate salons in this book. How did Pittsburghers respond to these conversations about the Renaissance?
Grimley: The idea of the salons was to occupy a museum gallery space, expose the process, and then bring the public in to talk through the main issues we identified. Stuff got left on the table from those sessions that could easily fill a secondary volume.
Kubo: To me, the salons demonstrated how alive these issues continue to be. There was a real need on the part of all sorts of different communities to talk about these issues, not just as history, but what they mean in the present and how you go forward. In the discussions, the feedback from the audience—even one of the security guards—was equally if not more interesting that what was being said by the people who came to speak. For a lot of people in attendance, this was their moment to speak and to be heard about these issues in a way that hadn’t happened before.