Landscape Architecture | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Landscape Architecture

Douglas Cooper's new mural redraws the map

Nineteenth-century British architect C. R. Cockerell was so impressed with the buildings of Christopher Wren, his predecessor by a over a century, that in 1838 he painted a large fantasy landscape made up entirely of Wren's architecture as a tribute. Structures from different areas of England -- Cambridge, Oxford and many parts of London -- were pictorially united in a setting to better dramatize the scope of Wren's achievements. Now, in an age of lavishly illustrated, four-color coffee-table books, to say nothing of animated interactive Web pages, Cockerell's practice has largely fallen out of favor. But a recently completed mural by Douglas Cooper with Grégoire Pichet for the Michael Baker Corporation reinvigorates the genre.

Cooper, a professor in the architecture department at Carnegie Mellon University (where I am an adjunct faculty member), has earned international acclaim for his monochromatic renderings of architectural landscapes. Although he has exhibited or installed pieces in Frankfurt, Rome, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York, much of his best work is in and about Pittsburgh, "a land of coal, hills, fire and water," as he describes it. Cooper envisions each landscape as a series of vignettes, "from multiple directions of view and multiple standpoints," but he blends them together with a coherent drama that emphasizes motion through distinguished topography. His murals at Carnegie Mellon, the Heinz History Center and, occasionally, the Concept Gallery demonstrate a personal vision of Pittsburgh that is technically skillful and intellectually rigorous yet also very accessible.

These qualities made him particularly appealing to the Michael Baker Corporation. The 63-year-old engineering and energy services company now has 4,000 employees and two dozen offices in the United States and abroad, but its roots and its new headquarters building are in western Pennsylvania. Its recently completed Moon Township building is an unremarkable suburban office structure. However, a two-story-high wall behind the reception desk, still blank near the end of construction, provided Baker with an artistic opportunity. According to corporate spokesman Doug Higie, Baker CEO Donald Fusilli Jr. saw some of Cooper's work and thought, "Boy, I'd really like to have something like that in our offices to show our history and celebrate our past and present."

Cooper was happy to comply. He met with Baker executives, examined a variety of archival photographs, and discussed the company's philosophy at some length. Baker's most visible work has been in the form of bridges, highways, pipelines and oil platforms. In the course of this technically demanding work, though, the company emphasizes concern for clients and employees as well as stewardship of the environment.

Cooper became convinced of the sincerity and success of these values and was able to convey them evocatively through his collaboration with his nephew, Grégoire Pichet. Pichet is an experienced animator with a facility in drawing the human figure that matches his uncle's alacrity with buildings and landscapes. "He's very skilled at thinking of people in motion, so that the people actually seem to be moving," says Cooper.

Their combined strengths make the Baker mural a stunning and entertaining work. In the vast imagined landscape, a river winds from bottom to top with a number of bridges crossing the water or running parallel to it. Only in the Baker landscape, though, does New York's Triborough Bridge run past the Pittsburgh Airport, which connects to downtown Pittsburgh by the Weirton-Steubenville Cable-Stayed Bridge. Likewise, only here could there be offshore oil drilling less than a mile from Three Rivers Stadium.

But the forces behind these surreal juxtapositions are clearly benevolent. All of Pichet's figures are drawn at huge scale to dwarf the busy linguine of transportation infrastructure and make its elements seem like benign household appliances. One hard-hat figure lifts the East Chester-Monaca Bridge with one hand, while another climbs the Triborough Bridge as if it were a backyard jungle gym. All the figures look active and sympathetic, their engineering challenges subjugated to humane interests.

That has not necessarily been how these constructions have operated in real life, though. Structures such as Three Rivers Stadium and the Pittsburgh Airport have used concrete in dehumanizing amounts. Then again, if Michael Baker's clients see this mural as an exhortation to put a larger human presence in their projects, then Cooper and Pichet's landscape may not be a fantasy after all.