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Higher Education

A renovation caps the Cathedral of Learning

For all of its quirks and shortcomings, the Cathedral of Learning is resolutely successful in making aspiration and inspiration clearly legible in architecture. Sure, the building is hokey and melodramatic -- like the Wagner operas that Pitt Chancellor John Bowman, the building's original client, legendarily listened to while dreaming of the structure. Still, the regal stepped-back massing and the soaring Gothic tracery convey inexorable spiritual and intellectual uplift through education more dramatically than most academic structures, and people seem to understand it.

The problem has been that the exterior promise of the building's height has been unrealized inside for the past seven decades. Certainly, the Commons Room and Nationality Rooms are among Pittsburgh's best public spaces, but the 35th and 36th floors, the highest publicly accessible levels, were for too long anonymous exercises in institutional plaster, not at all responsive to their height or the views they provided.

Now, though, a renovated space for the Honors College on those two floors has responded to this shortcoming. When considering changes for a program of growing prestige and excellence, Dean Alec Stewart decided he wanted an appropriate architectural counterpart, and he was quick to revive the metaphor of height. He wanted "lofty purpose, lofty setting, and lofty architecture [to] further inspire students to corresponding levels of academic and personal achievement," he told the Pitt Chronicle. John Bowman couldn't have said it better. Too many comparisons of height and architecture may sound like well-plowed furrows of the cliché farm, but only because the relationship between them is pervasive in many cultures. And exciting spaces and details grow from them still.

Credit for that achievement in this case goes to Rothschild Doyno Architects of Pittsburgh. The firm has successfully completed a number of integrated curriculum classrooms for Pitt, bringing new computer techniques into teaching environments. With the Honors College, the firm was able to make historical and symbolic issues a more explicit part of its approach. Pitt also appreciated the architects' "sketchbook process," in which the architects clearly diagram and explain all major issues of the project through each stage of design. The sketchbooks are presented in a display case in the new space.

Architect Ken Doyno determined that a new space for the Honors College would have to "bring the energy of the Commons Room to the top of the Cathedral and combine it with the passion and thoughtfulness of the Nationality Rooms." This was a challenge for spaces that were as dim and poorly organized as a bad student. To solve these problems, the architects tore out old interior walls and cut new holes in the floor slab. They placed offices around the perimeter of the building, but enclosed them with glass, so the space seemed more like one well-lit room and less like a high-altitude maze.

They grouped the common room and library on the 35th floor, connected to the 36th by a double-height reading room at the edge and a monumental stair in the middle. The revised space now benefits profoundly from openness, clarity and larger scale. At long last, an accessible space in the upper floors of the Cathedral lives up to the drama that the exterior has always suggested.

Thoughtful and precise details enhance this relationship by both echoing and updating the now-historic Gothic revival architecture. The precise joinery of the new woodwork, as well as the new-but-old-looking stained glass, reinforces the traditional sense of academia. Doyno credits Burchick Construction and Glenn Greene Glass of Regent Square for close attention to traditional types of craft. The stairs and rails reflect similar quality with a decidedly contemporary approach. These use steel sheets arranged in layers and cut to form a traditional quatrefoil motif adapted from the Cathedral's original architecture. The technique, though, is a laser-cutting procedure used by Vic Reynaud of Technique Manufacturing. An applied patina stabilizes the steel to give it an intentionally oxidized surface. The combination of craft and technology, refinement and rust captures the spirit of the project and the place with resonance and wit.

In its renewed form, the Honors College can give students a metaphorical version of the elevated perspective they have at that height. At the very least, with renewed appreciation, they can look down on athletics.

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