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Off the Map

A design boldly goes where no art has gone before: into Pittsburgh streets



Pittsburgh is still losing population, which is remarkable if you think about it. I mean, it's a wonder people even know how to get out of town. New Hampshire be damned: This is the real "can't get there from here" location.



Streets begin in parallel formation and then, like expectation and reality, diverge wildly. They halt abruptly in one place, only to resume without warning elsewhere, as if the city were having memory lapses. Different systems of gridded streets clash inharmoniously, each refusing to recognize the rationale of the other. If city council members can't agree, maybe it's because their constituents clash at odd angles at every traffic light. My primary reason for staying in Pittsburgh is that, after investing so much effort just learning to get around, it would seem wasteful to abandon the project now.


David Burns, Abigail Gray and Jason Morris of SO-AD, the Strategy Office of Aesthetics and Design, have the opposite problem. They are all young designers, new to Pittsburgh. But rather than figuring out how to leave, they have made avant-garde architecture from the process of mastering Pittsburgh's singular geography. Their installation, ENDonEND opens Fri., Jan. 28, from 6-9 p.m. at Downtown's Future Tenant Gallery.


Gray describes her reaction as a newcomer driving around Pittsburgh: "There are all these confusing and sometimes unintelligible transitions." Of course, that's half the fun, especially for admitted "map geeks." One of the first realizations about Pittsburgh maps is that flat paper offers no sense of the precipitous nature of hills and valleys. On the map, the South Side Flats and Slopes look pretty much the same. So the SO-AD designers wanted to do something stretched out rather than flat, a desire that suits the long, narrow space of Future Tenant.


ENDonEND is a long, narrow, skeletal frame fabricated from steel square tubing suspended from the ceiling. Every 10 feet or so, there is a perfect rectangle in section. Each one of these has different dimensions and a different angle of rotation to represent one of Pittsburgh's street grids. So, along the length of the frame, the steel tubes twist and bend to reconcile the transition from one "grid" to the next. On maps, such a transition is disjunctive. But this is an abstraction of a map. Instead of the grids being placed edge to edge, as in reality, they are placed end to end, thus the name.


Curving strips of plastic fabric, meanwhile, extend outward from the frame to point in the direction of the actual urban features that the grid pieces represent. "Vectors of latex," says Burns, naming the energetically wavy sheets, although he also sounds as if he has just named a new rock band.


ENDonEND is full of artistic tension and the tactile power than comes from artfully bent steel. It would be evocative on its own, but it's much more intellectually engaging based on its origins. "It's a fairly scientific analysis of these urban grids and the way they relate to each other," Gray comments.


The success of this piece comes from the way it makes an unmistakably progressive and sculptural artwork out of the ingredients of crusty old Pittsburgh. The SO-AD team designs buildings and stage sets; Burns and Gray worked on architect Hani Rashid's acclaimed installation at the recent Venice Biennale. The will for up-to-the-minute form-making is clear.


At the same time, all you have to do is look down this tube from the gallery entry to get a very Pittsburgh-esque sense of colliding geometries. Along its length, the twisted steel betrays an origin in both computer design and five-guys-pulling-a-big-ass-bending-machine fabrication.


Contained within an historic Liberty Avenue storefront and enclosed by hardscrabble brick walls, ENDonEND implies strongly that the series of contortions generated by this odd city could very well be extended into another piece of avant-garde design. Architecturally speaking, this town is far too conservative far too often. So it's a pleasure to see that, when viewed through fresh eyes, the city's very geography can suggest forward-thinking designs. It's a much more positive response than flipping someone off at an intersection.

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