It makes perfect sense that PPG Place was voted Pittsburgh's best building. Why, it already has its tiara on. And that feature, a jaunty crown of diamond-like glass pinnacles, explains much about PPG, and its place in our skies and hearts.
The building -- six of them, really -- was completed in 1984 to designs by architect Philip Johnson, then in partnership with John Burgee. The complex of offices, shops, restaurants and public spaces both indoors and out was intended to attract more executives, office workers, shoppers and visitors to the city -- and all of this at a time when the steel industry was failing and population was declining.
The late Richard Caligiuri was mayor, and PPG Place was a centerpiece of Renaissance II, part of a series of hopeful efforts to revitalize Downtown. Unlike the whiny, yet bankruptcy-inducing Tom Murphy, Caligiuri had a wonderful talent for bringing together a diverse range of forces in an inspiring and unified effort.
And PPG Place looks like just such a thing. Some people have compared the tower's form to London's Houses of Parliament. But really, the architectural father of this skyscraper is the Cathedral of Learning, where architect Charles Klauder made an encyclopedic, and appealingly incongruous tour de force of Gothic architecture into a beloved Pittsburgh landmark. It's as if PPG is the love child of Pitt's tower and the nearby Phipps Conservatory, another outstanding effort in glass architecture.
Another advantage was having a Downtown complex that proudly advertised the major product of a Fortune 500 company with "Pittsburgh" in the name: Pittsburgh Plate Glass. The building's glimmering walls insisted that Pittsburgh was a resurgent place. It beats that rusty old U.S. Steel Tower any old day.
And take yourself back to 1980 or so for just a moment. Back then, 30 or so years of corporate architecture had insisted that skyscrapers be muted and faceless boxes, in the name of good taste. Suddenly, though, Philip Johnson -- himself a longtime, well-known proponent of Modern architecture -- changed his stripes radically (and notoriously). He designed a famously pink and Chippendale-topped building for AT&T in New York. From then on, witty historical references, ironic uses of material and, generally, larger degrees of fabulousness were not just acceptable in skyscraper design: They were required.
Pittsburgh was in on it at the beginning, at least in the corporate realm. In the wake of the AT&T building, PPG Place was widely praised and published at the time of its completion. It is still literally a textbook example of this period of architecture. And when you see the glamour shots of the wittily crenellated glass skin capturing the reflections of sun and water, it's not hard to understand the ongoing appeal.
PPG does have its detractors. Some say that at street level it is an alienating house of mirrors, that the plaza was a colored limestone desert only recently mitigated by fountains and a skating rink.
Similarly, proponents of great architecture in Pittsburgh might lament the absence of worthy but less-known contenders from City Paper readers' list of preferences: Richardson's Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, Frederick Scheibler's Highland Apartments and Richard Meier's Giovannitti House ... all are legitimate masterpieces. The Gulf Building and Cathedral of Learning are deserving contenders, and the Union Trust should be in their ranks.
Philip Johnson, who died in 2005 at age 98, would have been pleased that CP readers named his complex the city's best building, but he probably wouldn't have been surprised. He was admittedly an impresario as much as an architect. He didn't necessarily make buildings that were the most brilliant or the most complex, but he knew how to make buildings that were likable, recognizable and popular.