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Martin Aurand Re-Views Pittsburgh

A new book proposes Pittsburgh topography as a spectator sport.

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When you drive into Pittsburgh through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, the realization is, or should be, immediate. This city's geographical location is one of the nation's most stunning, with rivers, hills and valleys unfolding in a remarkable tableau. In the post-industrial age, though, heads have cleared less readily than skies, so appreciation of the visual rather than mineral advantages of our topography has often been slow in coming. Even with grand riverside parks and plazas in the offing, projects for unsightly highways and unfathomable mountaintop removals would despoil the views rather than enhance them.  Don't these people understand that Pittsburgh in the land is nothing less than an artwork unfolding before our eyes each day?

Martin Aurand certainly does. The architectural librarian and archivist (as well as my colleague) at Carnegie Mellon has just published The Spectator and the Topographical City through the University of Pittsburgh Press. To best understand Pittsburgh as a city, he insists, you must grasp the topography at a grand scale and understand that each vignette has the substance and import of a landscape painting. "The countless vantage points of the topographical city encourage the active perception of its visual qualities," he explains. "In Pittsburgh, everyone is a spectator."

And the spectacle is both historic and cosmic. The Point is not simply a convenient site to fulfill military or transportation needs; it is Pittsburgh's omphalos, a site of founding to be interpreted in the cosmic order and compared with Athens or Jerusalem or Rome. Likewise, Grant's Hill, the now-lowered location of Grant Street, was to the early, and perhaps the present, Pittsburgh as a variety of sacred mountain, which "served as a central stage for drama, ceremony and power." Aurand, as a result, chronicles the lowering of Grant Street wryly. Still, from these pivotal locations grow a series of buildings as temples and watchtowers: factories as primordial cauldrons and roads as armatures for epic journeys, all enhanced by the sense of spectacle for the informed viewer.

The book is divided into four sections. "Perceiving the Topographical City" introduces the book's methodology in the context of Pittsburgh's both singular and universal qualities. "In View of the Golden Triangle" retells the history of downtown Pittsburgh with an emphasis on how different constructions were intended for different viewers, whether the earth-bound early settlers of the Point or the god-like Richard King Mellon peering down on his domain. In "Scenes from the Turtle Creek Valley," Aurand reframes the seemingly haphazard industrial landscape as one that was actually calculated to be seen with the technologies of steel, electricity, trains and automobiles in mind. Lastly, "Oakland and the Complex Vista," Aurand examines Carnegie Tech (now CMU) and the University of Pittsburgh, not simply as isolated building clusters, but as related entities joined by both geography and scholarly interpretation.

That last portion is most notable to me, because the CMU and Pitt designs by Henry Hornbostel have been topics of my doctoral research. Aurand engages these complexes with noteworthy scholarship and greater interpretive rigor than anything yet published on them. Hornbostel's College of Fine Arts at CMU is not simply a palace or exhibition hall to be seen, Aurand asserts; it is a location from which to see, and the campus and surrounding landscape are richer as a result of that realization. Aurand paraphrases Shakespeare to remind us that all of Carnegie Tech is a stage. And he has the archival photos to prove it.

For all of the unfounded self-aggrandizing that goes on in this city, Aurand's interpretations come across as both legitimate and well founded. He rigorously cites and quotes a broad range of sources, such as William R. Morrish's Civilizing Terrains: Mountains, Mounds and Mesas, David E. Nye's American Technological Sublime, and Vincent Scully's Architecture: The Natural and the Manmade, which inspire and legitimate such cosmic interpretations.

Occasionally, Aurand's assertions are speculative. Were these Hornbostel's exact calculations for how to view Hamerschlag Hall and Pitt in the distance? We may never know for certain. But Aurand's insistence on historically and technically informed viewing is a valuable service to all observers, whatever their conclusions. At last, a book on Pittsburgh architecture that has footnotes!

Aurand's book is a wonderfully scholarly reassertion of Pittsburgh's topographical beauty for those who may have doubted their own eyes, or for those who knew it already.

Image courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press
  • Image courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press

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