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Finally, Intelligent Design

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"You cannot step twice into the same river," Heraclitus famously stated. But if you build along the banks, you're stuck with the results for quite a while. So despite laudable ongoing efforts by the Riverlife Task Force, astonishing blunders have persisted along the rivers. We're still left to wonder how on earth Heinz could build a corrugated warehouse on the Allegheny that would embarrass a Bloomfield vinyl-siding salesman, and why so few people admit that the often-lauded "Lincoln at the North Shore" complex across the Ninth Street Bridge from Downtown looks like cheap grad-student housing.

 

 

Can't we get some real talent back in here? Perhaps more than any local institution, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has consistently understood that conscientious planning and global searches for design expertise usually give the best results -- notably in sculpture and landscape of the Katz Plaza and Allegheny Riverfront Park. If in the O'Reilly Theater we didn't get the best building ever from Michael Graves, so be it. The Trust's latest round of architect selections -- choosing a short list of four design teams to compete for an upcoming development project Downtown -- indicates a more current and global set of tastes will be applied to a prominent site.

 

The Cultural District Riverfront Development is a six-acre parcel with edges on Eighth Street and Fort Duquesne Boulevard at the Allegheny River. Rather than hand it over to the first developer who could make the numbers work, in 2000 the Trust commissioned a study from the Urban Land Institute, which called this site a "unique and valuable ... opportunity that is available only in a very few major metropolitan areas."  An international conference, "Shaping the Vision," followed in 2005 to solicit ideas and further publicize the Cultural District as a draw for international experts in architecture, landscape and urban planning. 

 

As a result, a complex program has emerged for the multi-faceted district. Plans call for 600 housing units, a 220-room hotel, 50,000 square feet of restaurants and retail, a 1,500-space parking garage, a sculpture garden and a marina.

 

And there is widespread interest from developers and architects: Ten and 60 of them, respectively, originally expressed interest in the work. The Trust's recently announced short list left such distinguished practitioners as Pritzker Prize-winning design diva Zaha Hadid in the unfamiliar position of also-ran, which indicates high standards indeed.

 

The complex project has necessitated the creation of large and multi-faceted teams, led and publicized in terms of their developers while including numerous architecture firms. But really the headline should come from the lead architects on each team, including: Julie Eizenberg, of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, Santa Monica, Calif., on Team A; Winy Maas of MVRDV, Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Team B; Stefan Behnisch of Benhisch Architekten, Stuttgart, Germany/Venice, Calif., on Team C; and Steven Holl of Steven Holl Architects, New York, on Team D.

 

Heinz Architectural Center co-curator Raymund Ryan served on the selection committee and declined to comment on its inner workings, but I suspect that much of its elevated taste originates from him. The project is making some headlines nationally even though design submissions are not due until May. I am pulling for Julie Eizenberg -- and not simply out of my bias from having participated with her on reviews of student work. I also think she may be the best of this group in combining a human and personal understanding of public space with agreeably hip design.

 

It almost doesn't matter. Any one of these four teams could do an outstanding job that will improve the city fabric, raising local standards for design and bringing beneficial international attention. It may be a cliché, but regardless of which team gets selected, Pittsburgh will be the winner.

 

The trick will be to get developments outside the purview of the Cultural Trust to realize that this sort of selection process is a river -- one we want to step into more than just once.

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