There are currently plenty of large-scale happenings in Pittsburgh architecture, with a casino and an arena on the horizon and buildings of different varieties going up and coming down. With the recent conclusion of the Home & Garden show, though, one of the smallest forays into architecture has proven to be one of the most telling. The Girl Scouts Build a Dream Auction gives insights into the strengths of the architectural profession as well as some ways in which it needs to reposition itself for greater positive influence.
Amid the profusion of deck chairs, kitchen appliances, hot tubs, fountains and locking paver systems at the Home & Garden show, the architectural profession seemed mostly absent at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The numerous prefabricated houses had an architect somewhere along the line, but not one whom you as a customer will ever encounter, which is too bad: Isn't one real lesson of architecture that a clever idea from an experienced professional can add value to, and shift perspective on, a humble material? It would have been great to see more architects on site, saying, "Bring me your run-of-the-mill name-brand windows, and I will design something innovative and practical yet inexpensive with them."
The Girls Scouts' auction was indeed an opportunity for architects, collaborating with teams of contractors and consultants, to show off their talents. The premise was to design a small playhouse specifically for kids, to encourage their creative imagination. This is the second year of the auction, and eight teams participated, with the actual houses on site and accepting bids through March 18. They all deserve praise for donating time and materials to a worthy organization.
Likewise, some of the houses have especially good lessons to teach. The design by DGGP Architects, teamed with Sota Construction, emphasizes recycled materials and sustainable design, including a green roof. "The rubber floor is made from recycled car tires, the loft decking is made from used grocery sacks and the metal ... roof pans [that hold the turf] are made from empty soda cans," the team statement announced.
A design by RSSC Architects with the Landau Building Company places a similar emphasis on recycling and adds reuse to the equation as well. The structure, they state, can be used as a potting shed once the kids are grown up.
At the time of writing, though, the auction was favoring the Gnome Hideaway, by R-Squared architects. No environmental lessons here, simply " a backdrop for kids to act out any fantasy." And the architects deserve great credit. Their playhouse is a reduced-scale version of an arts-and-crafts bungalow, executed with significant stylistic accuracy and refined craft. This is by far the cutest house, and shrewdly the most recognizably house-like for a broad audience. But the real fantasy is thinking that in the future we can build architecture without environmental concerns.
For that matter, I am not so sure about the lessons that the auction, a willfully pedagogical exercise, is teaching. Many organizations have donated generously to this enterprise, but (at the time of writing) the bids were not close to the actual cost of the structures displayed, which seems like a terrible waste of donor generosity.
Success of the program depends on a small handful of wealthy bidders, presumably with sizable backyards, buying lavish playhouses for their fortunate children. Do you have to have rich parents to learn the lessons of environmentally conscientious architecture? The Girl Scouts emphasize achievement through hard work, diligent study and community service. This fund-raiser should live up to those noble ideals.
Using the expertise and generosity of architects and contractors to help raise money for the Girl Scouts is a fine idea. I can imagine contests in which individual Girl Scouts work with the architects and contractors more closely to design models or do-it-yourself kits that are more accessible to children of varied means. They should build model playhouses entirely out of leftover cookie boxes. They could build the winning design in a park or a playground.
But among the hordes of enterprising do-it-yourselfers at the Home & Garden show, only a tiny fraction actually made bids on these playhouses. Clearly, this undertaking needs to be more affordable, more accessible and more relevant.