In a Different League | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In a Different League

Compared to rivals, our architecture is as hapless as our sports teams

It's sad at this point in the season to realize that we can't compete with Seattle, especially when we've been bragging about how great Pittsburgh is. But to be shown up by Cleveland? That's the real embarrassment.

Of course, I'm not talking about football teams, but rather about cities with Frank Gehry buildings. These places have one, and Pittsburgh does not. Cleveland whupping our ass should be at least as embarrassing in architecture as it is on the gridiron.

Skeptics will argue that Gehry is an over-priced and overrated flavor of the month, whose primary distinction is the vast ocean of ink that has been spilled in praise of his buildings with their stop-action flames of gleaming, wavy sheet metal. Foremost among these structures is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which was Spain's version of Pittsburgh, until it underwent a stunning architecture-inspired transformation. Now comes the opening of Gehry's long-awaited Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which has inspired a renewed fusillade of coverage, including "Person of the Week" status two weeks ago for Gehry on ABC News.

Usually, that's just an affirmation that something is ephemeral and insubstantial. But I say that Gehry's work is remarkable and invigorating, and some of the best evidence is near the shores of Lake Erie.

The Peter B. Lewis building at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Business is the most remarkable new structure in several states. (To be certain, I should probably visit Zaha Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati -- speaking of Pittsburgh getting shown up by lesser rivals.) Like his other work, Gehry's Cleveland building is brash to the point of being surreal. In addition to his characteristic eruptions of cascading bent metal, even the brick walls of the six-story structure curve and coil. The result is as if Dr. Seuss and Timothy Leary snuck in and finished the project while Gehry was asleep. The interior is a similarly amorphous festival: Curving passageways, floating volumes, skewed columns and picturesque overlooks abound, with barely a straight line in sight. Even the fire-exit maps look like abstract expressionist paintings, yet there is still something strangely gentle and humane about the whole enterprise. Not incidentally, the structure emphatically serves its purpose as a business school, with high-tech classrooms, offices, libraries and meeting spaces.

Sure, Pittsburgh has one good new building: Rafael Vinoly's Convention Center. But saying that one good piece of contemporary architecture is enough is like saying that one downtown department store is enough. In fact, unlikely as it may seem, Gehry's architecture, beyond its status as a stunning art object, has stimulated strides in business and technology that would make Lord & Taylor blush. Criticized as expensive eye candy, it actually exemplifies in both construction process and form a philosophy of creative collaboration and inspired innovation, making business more like a cooperative art and less like a soulless exercise in bean-counting. This would sound like promotional-brochure hooey, except that Case Western has already organized a symposium to publicize the innovative management practices this building project has inspired.

The same innovations apply to the building's technology. Gehry's use of CATIA three-dimensional software from the aerospace industry is well documented and publicized. Gehry's mind initiates the outrageous structures, but exact computer modeling makes building them possible. Additionally, Case Western spokespeople emphasize that contractors who worked on their building found themselves developing new technological skills that stimulated new businesses and new clients.

Good architecture reflects an advancing society, but great architecture stimulates one. Isn't this precisely the kind of forward-thinking technological prowess that we claim to have here?

None of this would have been possible without auto-insurance billionaire Peter B. Lewis, who paid around $37 million of the structure's $62 million cost. Critics will also point out that the building had cost overruns that led Lewis to fire most of his board of trustees. Notably, though, he retained Gehry and continues to hire him for more buildings. Maybe we would get Lewis to join the board of a Pittsburgh institution so that he would hire Gehry to design a building here. If Cleveland can do it, surely Pittsburgh can as well.

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