A big Cultural Trust development project is on hold, but the smart design principles it embodies highlight an intriguing Heinz Architectural Center exhibit. | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A big Cultural Trust development project is on hold, but the smart design principles it embodies highlight an intriguing Heinz Architectural Center exhibit.

In July 2006, after an international competition, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust unveiled the winning designs for its RiverParc project with great fanfare. On the six-acre Cultural District parcel between Seventh and Ninth streets, stretching from Penn Avenue to Fort Duquesne Boulevard, the project envisions seemingly weightless glass towers rising from an artful network of urban plazas and walkways, connecting to a lavish riverfront landscape. All told, the $460 million project -- most memorably portrayed in a dramatic but slightly sketchy perspective rendering -- would include 700 housing units as well as 159,000 square feet of retail and 530,000 square feet of structured parking.  

Now, though, the project seems both less and more real than the original documents suggested. Cultural Trust President Kevin McMahon recently told the Post-Gazette that construction, which was supposed to begin in 2007, is delayed until 2009 because of the slumping housing market.  

In the meantime, at the Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center, the current exhibition Ecology. Design. Synergy. features collaborative work by Behnisch Architekten and Transsolar ClimateEngineering, architects and consultants on the RiverParc project. (The RiverParc competition team also included architectsAlliance, Gehl Architects and WTW architects, as well as Gateway Engineers.) Accompanied by a range of physically and philosophically similar projects from other cities, their detailed plans of the Pittsburgh scheme give a palpable sense of both the rigorous process behind the design and what the completed project could be like.

For example, Behnisch's Norddeutsche Landesbank, completed in 2002 in Hannover, Germany, combines a number of the features proposed for Pittsburgh. This full-block urban structure uses mid-rise buildings and mixed-use retail functions to reconnect to existing city fabric, while defining a pedestrian-oriented inner courtyard that takes its shape from established walking paths. These elements form a transitional buffer around the high-rise office tower whose mass, in willfully sculpted rectilinearity, also aims to capture sunlight and catch prevailing winds. This project lives up to its promise of lively but sensitive urban planning. Its crisply detailed sensibility of a village of glass contrasts tellingly with the corporate slapdash of a PPG Place.

Similarly, the Genzyme Headquarters, in Boston, implements a considerable spectrum of sustainable components with advanced design and technique. As in the Norddeutsche Landesbank, but perhaps to a greater degree, what seems like ambitious Modern aesthetics is actually an implementation of light-catching, air-circulating multi-story atriums. One rises through the building's entire height in a slightly 1970s fashion; other, smaller atria open at different levels throughout. 

Behnisch and Transsolar have designed a sophisticated architectural organism to circulate light and air to the benefit of both habitability and energy savings. A roof-mounted heliostat tracks the sun and reflects light down through the building, providing illumination and allowing multistory geometric chandeliers to sparkle continually. While a network of vertical louvers is computer-controlled to regulate light and shade, the use of individually operable windows overrides nearby heating and cooling systems to conserve energy, resulting in a synthesis of manual and automatic control. These systems are a far cry from architects who make claims to sustainable design through useful but mundane operable windows.

Heinz Architectural Center co-curator Raymund Ryan praises Behnisch and Transsolar for architecture that maintains its commitment to aesthetics as well. "A lot of people are serious about sustainability," he says, "but why not work with the best designers you can, people who are operating at a global level?"

Curated by Frank Ockert, the exhibit itself exemplifies that international appeal through both its content and how it has circulated. From its origins with Stuttgart's Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations, the exhibit has traveled to Harvard and Yale before arriving here, where it's on display through May 25. The RiverParc project, though documented more thoroughly for the Pittsburgh exhibit, has been a key component of the show in all of its travels.

Also importantly, a show beginning April 25 at 707 Penn Ave, Downtown, will document the other three finalists in the Cultural Trust's architectural competition.

The economy may be in a lull, but ideally the exhibition of these designs now can help contribute to the momentum and interest needed for eventual construction.  

A big Cultural Trust development project is on hold, but the smart design principles it embodies highlight an intriguing Heinz Architectural Center exhibit.
Reflects well: a view from above of the light-dispersing chandeliers in the Genzyme Headquarters, in Boston. Photo courtesy of Behnisch Architekten.

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