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Furor over lasers puts a good plan in a false light

Whoever said geography is destiny must not have been to Pittsburgh recently. Here we are with beautiful rivers and stunning topography, slowly recovering from a couple centuries of environmental exploitation: What could be more compelling symbolically than two rivers converging and heading west, joining forces and moving toward the future? Faced with economic decline, we should look at our natural surroundings -- part of our fundamental identity -- as inspiration for consensus and progress. That's what some design proposals from the Riverlife Task Force seem to do. Unfortunately, some detractors act as if Pittsburgh is located not at the confluence of rivers but on a delta, where the most powerful forces are obstruction and divergence.


At the end of April, the Riverlife Task Force sponsored a charette to solicit public input on designs by London-based design firm Art2Architecture to light Three Rivers Park in Pittsburgh. The "park" is less an existing thing than a vision. Studies by architects including Chan/Krieger Associates and Burt Hill Kosar Rittelman have determined that a continuous, green, accessible, well-designed park ought to be placed along Pittsburgh's riverfront, from the West End Bridge on the Ohio to the 16th Street Bridge on the Allegheny and the 10th Street Bridge on the Mon. A few pieces of the puzzle are complete -- at Point State Park, on the so-called North Shore and in the Cultural District -- but others are in various states of decay and misuse.


Still, RTF wants to make the idea into reality. As an early part of what might be a decades-long effort, RTF is working on designs to use light both literally and symbolically. Artistic lighting designs can generate enthusiasm and beautify the city at costs lower than new building construction. Of course, illumination also exerts considerable metaphorical power: helping us see the rivers in a new light. We're the city that loves Light-Up Night. Taking that impulse to a more artistic level is a fine idea.


And the Riverlife Task Force is going about this in absolutely the right way. They hired Art2Architecture after conducting an international search for light artists. The firm, led on this project by artist Peter Fink, has conducted extensive interviews and will hold at least one more charette in June. In lighting buildings, bridges, sidewalks and parks, the designers have suggested many elements of subtlety and responsiveness. Art2Architecture suggests ways of focusing, shaping and coloring light on elements as large as buildings or as small as park benches, with such subtlety and control that each vignette contributes to the sense of the entire city, not just the lit object, as a work of art. And this is very much an open process, with more community input and, presumably, changes forthcoming.


The problem is that one very striking element in an insightful and multi-faceted design has taken center stage in the debate thus far, in a way that doesn't effectively represent the process or product. Art2Architecture has proposed shooting laser beams from the tops of the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges to form a gigantic "X" above the Point.


The green laser beams are hard to ignore, but why the sneering? Eric Heyl of the Tribune-Review, who clearly didn't understand any part of the design very well, published a nasty indictment of it nonetheless. Perhaps this is because former Post-Gazette editor John Craig is on the RTF board. On the other hand even a P-G editorial acknowledges receiving considerable mail against the green X proposal. In all honesty, I can't say that I am in favor of that particular element. We have such an outstanding natural setting, with certain man-made elements such as bridges serving as wonderful complements, that we need to avoid gilding the lily in creating new designs. The best parts of the proposal enhance but do not overwhelm the city and landscape.


But Peter Fink and the RTF seem to understand that. Criticizing Art2Architecture's designs on the basis of that one element, well, misses the point. Concerned Pittsburghers should use the next charette (time and place to be announced) as an opportunity to familiarize themselves with every aspect of Art2Architecture's designs, for this city and for others such as Lyon, France, where their work is largely complete. We should appreciate and capitalize on the opportunity to influence the development of these designs in a positive way, not simply indulge in divisive bellyaching over incomplete information.


Whether or not people like the proposal for the criss-crossed laser beams, these efforts should still get the green light.

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By Mars Johnson