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Second Childhood 

The Children's Museum is reborn

 

 

Except for maybe bedtime, nothing can come soon enough when you are a kid: Christmas (for many), vacations, birthdays. Childhood is just one intolerable wait after another, until the deeply anticlimactic achievement of adulthood. From then on, the anticipation is less nerve-wracking, though the joy is less pure.

 

 

Happily, the newly expanded and reopened Pittsburgh Children's Museum reverses this process. It's been eagerly anticipated through its four-year design and construction process. Now that the building is open, though, the wait has made us not into adults, but back into kids.

 

The architectural design by highly regarded Koning Eizenberg Architects of Santa Monica (working with Perkins Eastman as local Executive Architects) came from a process that included both meetings for community members and a national design competition. These efforts, potentially mutually exclusive, actually led to good results. There are artistic elements at a variety of levels that also foster the sense of community and fun that a Children's Museum needs.

 

Basically, the new part of the building is an elegant multi-story box placed between the Renaissance-style old Children's Museum, formerly the post office, and the moderne former Buhl Planetarium, now also part of the museum. The addition connects to both older parts -- both of which feature domes -- creating an urban dialogue of architecture across the generations. Urban renewalists take note: The whole here is even greater than the sum of its parts.

 

Undoubtedly, more people will take note of the fabulously groovy wind screens, a collaboration between the architects and artist Ned Kahn, who has created this sort of work elsewhere. Consisting of thousands of polycarbonate squares hinged at the top and mounted on the building's outward-tilting facade trusses, the screens ripple in patterned waves like water when it's windy. It's mesmerizing, and better for a children's museum than the original competition scheme for angular folding walls.

 

The addition has other positive elements. The highly modernist glass-and-steel entry pavilion is actually a welcoming front porch, complete with swing. Its airy openness is also a beneficial contrast to some of the historically dark and unlit spaces of the re-used Buhl. Actually, the architects did cut one very large window on the eastern end of what used to be the Buhl's lobby. Visible from the new entrance, that opening improves the entire complex.

 

The complex is chock-full of exhibits, activities and works of art in much greater profusion than in the old. Part of the brilliance of the place is that it frequently nods to adults. There's plenty of great artwork by standouts including Tim Kaulen, Keny Marshall and Hyla Willis. The real hits, though, are the interactive video installations. One, "Gathering," by Camille Utterback and Adam Chapman of Creative Nerve, Inc., uses cameras and screens to project images of nearby people as if they were reflected in mirrors. But the screen also shows interactive computerized forms as well as partial images of people from the adjacent screen and camera. Here, video is a means to unite rather than to isolate. It is very serious art that is tons of fun to play with. Even if the kiddies prefer Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, adults may well find this and a couple of other video pieces alone worth the voyage.

 

Of course, if you went to the Buhl in its heyday, the current state-of-the-art projection equipment only reminds you that the Zeiss projector is gone (as are some other elements, such as the steel industry mural). The Zeiss was a highly complex, curiously insect-like light emitting device that re-created movements of stars and planets on the inner dome of the Buhl Planetarium theater for generations of awestruck visitors. And even with fun exhibits as replacements, the domed space where the Zeiss used to be now has a slightly sad Wizard-of-Oz-revealed feeling, one that will tug at the hearts of some older true Pittsburghers.

 

Really, though, there are two ways of being a kid again. If you want to go back to the way things were when you were little, you can't escape feeling that bit of melancholy even amid the fun of the former Planetarium. But doesn't this apply to many places in the Pittsburgh region? (Have you been to Kaufmann's Downtown recently?) On the other hand, if you want to see the world through fresh eyes, get excited, feel stimulated and have fun -- with some savvy nods to your status as an adult -- then the Pittsburgh Children's Museum is a great place to go.

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