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Complications Set In

Complications Set In
Photo courtesy of Charles Rosenblum.
A novel of a building: Carnegie Mellon's Gates Hillman Center.

Like many enthusiasts of contemporary architecture, I was especially excited when Carnegie Mellon University (where I am a faculty member in the Schools of Architecture and Art) announced that Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam would design the Gates Hillman Center.

Scogin and Elam have been avant-garde favorites for a number of years. Their Wang Student Center, at Wellesley College, is often praised as one of the best buildings of its kind. Their Knowlton School of Architecture, at Ohio State, is a personal favorite, with an adventurous sense of structure, space and enclosure that makes the entire thing seem like an exploration in design and not simply a building.

Also, new architecture on Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh campus has seemed especially timid and tepid in recent years, with overly imitative tributes to the campus's historical architecture punctuated by the occasional unfortunate throwback to weird 1970s modernism.

As a bonus, Scogin and Elam's previous work at Emory University, a campus also designed by Carnegie Mellon's original architect, Henry Hornbostel, had made them into fans of the historical architect's work even before their arrival here. The prospects seemed auspicious indeed.

The results, alas, are mixed. Starting with the building site, the structure is tucked in a back-of-house location where crowded campus neighbors and deeply irregular terrain should call for architectural moves that organize and clarify. Scogin speaks admiringly of Hornbostel's architecture, and reasonably so. This building, though, seems to take its cues from the ad hoc, overstuffed, poorly considered additions to the rears of Hornbostel's original works, not the planned, serene and rational buildings of the original campus master plan. The Gates building's near-fractal-like complexity can be entertaining to view, but it continues to be difficult for frequent-but-not-daily users to navigate.

And that skin certainly isn't helping anyone. I was prepared for a building surface that combined a forward-looking design with an appreciation for Hornbostel's subtly layered walls and windows. Indeed, these are an obvious tribute to the historical campus. Nonetheless, they seem to embrace busy-ness for its own sake. Layers! Angles! Folds! Creases! Layers! Angles! Folds! Creases! Almost the whole building is covered with this treatment, with no help from the dour, black shingled wall surface.  

Tellingly, in certain background parts of the façade, a greenish translucent glass and simpler window treatment enclose the building. This probably would have been a better approach for the entire skin. It would have made the structure seem less overcooked.

That overbaked sensibility also applies to much of the building interior. In fairness, there is an airy openness in many of the spaces that is a welcome change from the notoriously dark Wean Hall, from which many of the computer science offices are moving. Also, the presence of many new ad hoc "break-out rooms" gives the place a sense of energy and spontaneous, collective energy that the computer science department touted through much of the building's promotion.

But one of the building's most prominent organizing spaces proves to be one of its most disappointing. The building has a central atrium with a continuous spiral ramp (supplementing the conventional stairs and elevators) connecting several but not all of the nine floors. Rather than being open, in pleasant contrast to some of the building's more frenetic protrusions, the atrium is actually mostly filled with classroom spaces that appear fairly stuffed in. As a result, the ramps seem unnecessarily circuitous rather than luxuriant, a feeling exacerbated by a sense of colliding structures, materials and colors throughout. It's a Guggenheim in need of a Guggenheimlich maneuver.

In creating a new structure, a choice may belong to a designer, a donor, a university, an engineer, a zoning code, a spike in material prices requiring a change. And there are many thousands of these choices, for good and ill. There's a novel, not just a column, to be written about a building as complex as Gates Hillman. Certain large-scale miscues don't negate the many visual and architectural pleasures that this structure does provide.

There is still too much dull recent architecture on Carnegie Mellon's Oakland campus. For the next building, I would still recommend that the university and its architects err on the side of adventurousness, even if that's exactly what seems to have happened here.

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