Novel Tease | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Novel Tease

Architecture always has a strange relationship to time. As builders of monuments, architects strive for permanence, yet their design interests change from one year to the next. It's no surprise, then, that this year's design-awards program from the Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Institute of Architects presents an intriguing blend of consistency and change. One difference this year is that the contest's presentation boards have been on display on the sixth floor of 121 Seventh St., Downtown, instead of in the USX Tower, with its overzealous and counterproductive building security, that was used in previous incarnations. Actual exhibition hours have been limited, but accessibility during the Oct. 6 Gallery Crawl insured that an especially large audience would see the works -- a good idea. At the moment, the contestants are still visible online ( in conjunction with voting for a People's Choice Award sponsored by Columbia Gas. Winners will be announced Oct. 24. Other aspects of the awards program are very consistent from one year to the next. It used to be fun to predict the award winners. Invariably, EDGE Studios would win numerous awards, as would Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Studio d'Arc and Pfaffmann + Associates. Quite likely Rothschild Doyno Architects, Arthur Lubetz Associates, Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects, and Springboard Architecture would as well. In earlier years, I thought that I was eerily prescient in selecting these firms. In fact, they, and some others, are just consistently substantive. Nor are they the only ones. Last year, awards also went to free agent Anne Rainbow Savage and corporate juggernaut Burt Hill. Compelling in a different way are changes in design approaches from year to year. For example, the Design Alliance has won awards in this program before, but invariably for conservative work for corporate clients. This year, its proposal for a speculative office building at the SouthSide Works is an adventurous, contemporary design whose syncopated windows and curved building mass, rendered with silvery metallic skin, would work next to the Hudson River, not just the Mon. The Design Alliance could do more work like this and still maintain the high levels of service and professionalism for which it is known. Along similar lines, Renaissance 3 Architects have entered a design that is far and away more bold than other projects from their firm. The project for a Junior Achievement Experiential Learning Center is an amalgam of angular masses in blue, yellow, orange and red, perforated with artfully placed slots as windows. It's a surprising turn from a firm with a highly traditionalist residential design in the same program. They, too, should do more work of the innovative variety. Other firms are simply new themselves. Evolve Environment :: Architecture enters the awards with the evolvehouse, a prototype for sustainable living: an elegant and compact living structure beneath a butterfly roof. Here, mechanical systems, material selection and solar orientation are aspects essential to an overall approach of environmental conscientiousness. In addition to the necessity of seeing this sort of work earn recognition, it will be exciting to see this project advance to construction, perhaps in numerous iterations, as sustainable design continues to be a prominent force in the Pittsburgh built environment. MLJ Architects is another relative newcomer, but their Wax Jewelry Design Studio, on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside, is an elegant essay in metal cladding. Though not much larger than the wearable baubles inside, their design still hints at promising work in the future. Awards programs and presentation boards that represent them invariably bring out complaints. Only the firms that can afford expensive photography will do well. Some of the buildings look much better in photographs than in real life, when really, the reverse should be true. And even though completing a functional building on time and budget is a hugely difficult enterprise, more of these buildings should be more innovative and exciting. The indictments are essentially the same every year. And yet each year, architects and spectators show up to see what's new.

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