A speculative design: the Quantum IV building. Image courtesy of The Design Alliance
If you really want to appreciate the mixed-use retail-and-residential development at the SouthSide Works, go first to, say, the Waterworks, at the edge of Fox Chapel. Like its many brethren, this place is nearly the worst thing possible, designed, if at all, for vast acreage of asphalt parking spaces, with more regard for automobiles than for the people who will get out of them.
Go to the SouthSide Works, though, and you will see an emphasis on urban density and pedestrian-oriented planning that takes very beneficial inspiration from the adjoining historic district of Carson Street. Also positively, there is an emerging opportunity for exciting architecture to be an intrinsic part of the package, as a new proposed office-building design by The Design Alliance Architects shows. Not that the SouthSide Works has terribly forward-thinking designs just yet. Although developers the Soffer Organization commissioned a well-considered, 36-page set of design guidelines in 2000 to more thoughtfully regulate ongoing construction of streets, buildings, parking and public spaces, these principles have not guaranteed complete success. New buildings along Carson Street have a cartoonish sense of the past, as if they feared the future. Also, apparently not even the best design guidelines could have prevented a Cheesecake Factory building that is as hypercaloric yet insubstantial as a huge slice of high-fructose corn syrup. Clearly, the design guidelines don't guarantee success; they only prevent some varieties of disaster. The success that The Design Alliance is aiming for almost didn't happen. The firm was producing office-building designs for a corporate client and proposed a scheme that principal David Ross describes as "fairly contemporary and aggressive." Unfortunately, he explains, "everyone was excited, except the executives." So an ambitious design almost died. But developer Soffer liked the contemporary scheme and asked for a reconfigured version on a different site. The result is the Quantum IV proposal, a speculative design still in search of tenants. The structure is a gleeful yet pragmatic exercise in folding aluminum skin and flowing glass walls with a pleasantly anti-gravitational sense of building mass floating one floor off the ground, though it is really supported by a conventional steel frame. Fans of contemporary architecture will be happy to mention projects such as Diller, Scofidio and Renfro's Eyebeam Museum of Art and Technology in the same sentence, and to make knowing references to architect Greg Lynn's influential theoretical writings -- "the Folded, the Pliant and the Supple." A Pittsburgh building can and should have a dialogue with the avant garde, not simply the retrograde. Yet this building is very much appropriate to its place. The transparent ground floor comes directly from design-guideline stipulations that encourage pedestrian activity -- there will be restaurants here. Similarly, sculpted balconies are aimed at favored view corridors. Also, the irregularly perforated walls that seem arbitrary are actually a fairly frank expression of how the service functions on the east side of the structure intersect with the office block.
So it all makes good sense. "If you look at the design guidelines, for sites closer to the river, they encourage designs that are glass and open," says project architect Joseph German. They also encourage adventurousness. "Along the river," says the document, "more informal building massing and articulation is encouraged." It's just a matter of finding tenants for the space who share the willingness to be contemporary. The Design Alliance has a long list of corporate clients who have been satisfied with responsive and professional designs that don't always make bold, progressive statements. Don't forget, though, that this is the firm that brought us the Alcoa headquarters on the North Side. With former CEO Paul O'Neill as a driving force, that building set a very high standard for Pittsburgh architecture and brought for the city the sort of international praise that hokey nostalgia never seems to muster. A speculative office building is by necessity less expensive than a corporate headquarters. Nevertheless, the Quantum IV building provides the Design Alliance with the chance to bring renewed positive attention to riverfront architecture in Pittsburgh. Could this give other firms the opportunity to follow suit? "Hope so," says German