At its best, the Festival of Lights helps us see architecture differently. | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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At its best, the Festival of Lights helps us see architecture differently.

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After extensive study and travel in the 1820s, French architect Jean-Ignace Hittorff published an illustrated book of his remarkable theories and reconstruction drawings of polychromy in Greek architecture. Though the ancient temples had long been known only as worn stone ruins, Hittorff made first-hand observations of tiny flecks of pigment still clinging to the buildings, and based on his findings depicted the structures with lavish and treatments of multicolored paint. He thereby unleashed an academic debate that continued for decades, if not centuries. How could viewers, long familiar with the somber iconic piles of antique remains (perhaps only through published illustrations), accept these sudden reconstitutions of effusively variegated form?

For the next few weeks, Pittsburghers face a similar dilemma as a few of our own sober monuments are reimagined in newly multicolored palettes. As part of the Festival of Lights component of Pittsburgh's 250th birthday celebration, the Cathedral of Learning, Katz Plaza, the Omni William Penn Hotel and the Convention Center all feature colored light treatments through Nov. 20. A downloadable map (www.pittsburghcelebrates.com) also notes permanent light-based works in town, and a selection of religious structures relit to emphasize their stained glass.

Perhaps the Cathedral of Learning's new illumination is a shock because I've only lately become acclimated to the tower's recent cleaning, a change that had an impact similar to its current light installation.

Certainly, a fresh, preservation-based scrubbing was conscientiously administered and beneficial to the structure's physical well-being. But the old, partially worn coating of Pittsburgh soot seemed eerily reminiscent of a drawing by Hugh Ferriss, the Art Deco-era architectural illustrator who portrayed skyscrapers as shadowy spectral masses against foreboding floodlit skies. Accordingly, the old smudges were a printed fiction made delightfully real.

With the current lighting treatment, designed by Friedrich Förster and Sabine Weissinger for New York and Paris-based firm ARTLUMIERE, the cathedral makes a different variety of fiction visible, if not actually real. According to the artists' statement, the design "celebrates the contribution of the Guttenberg Press and features a contemporized font type of random colors with no meaning, in reverse as if on press, presented in vivid colors."

Projecting metal type onto the face of a building, especially a gothic one, recalls Victor Hugo's ruminations on architecture, religion and printing in the 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris. Hugo's argument was that the written word would do away with architecture and faith: As the masses become literate, Hugo speculated, they would abandon practices of both artistic and religious vision.

Hugo was not exactly correct, though many thought he might have been. When Henri Labrouste designed the Bibliotheque Ste. Genevieve in Paris, beginning in 1843, he abandoned nearly all traditional ornamental forms of architecture, instead covering the building with the names of contemporary authors. Perhaps printing would take over architecture.

This is certainly what happens with corporate logos on Downtown towers. Architecture and history be damned: The entire structure should be subsumed into the same corporate logo that we have on our stationery and Web page. There will be no thinking about anything other than, say, quality heath care, thank you very much.

By comparison, the Cathedral of Learning treatment seems especially joyous and substantive, as if it were a ghostly rumination on Hittorff's polychromy and Labrouste's typefaces. The alignment of form and color with the structure of the building seems especially appreciative of its sculpted massing and vertical emphasis.

The randomness of the letters could seem a bit nihilistic. As the strident LED signs at the nearby bus stops demonstrate, though, we live in a world of overbearing signifying and instructional text. If the letters on the cathedral are willfully meaningless, then they only recall more recent traditions of French theory that revel in deferred and ambiguous meanings rather than any directly correlative ones. There is a certain pleasure in abandoning the need to make sense.

The display is certainly pretty to look at, but its real success is not in simply making architecture look different, but in making us look at architecture differently. Not every such project does so (a proposed electronic display on Downtown's new Transportation Center comes to mind). But Pittsburgh should allow electrified text on architecture only if it meets that requirement.

They're projecting: Friedrich Frster and Sabine Weissinger's lighting design for the Cathedral of Learning.
  • They're projecting: Friedrich Frster and Sabine Weissinger's lighting design for the Cathedral of Learning.

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