In the late 1970s, architectural historian Jamie Van Trump went up to the outdoor terrace of Oakland’s University Club to write a series of essays. For at least one of them, he unapologetically downed a couple of martinis so he could bang out an overdue commentary. He wrote about the building where he sat and his view of the adjacent Soldiers and Sailors Memorial. Five and seven decades after their respective completions, the University Club was subtle but excellent, and the bombastic, outdated Soldiers and Sailors was still especially wonderful.
With the renovation of the former Washington Vocational School into the Tryp Hotel, complete with its rooftop restaurant Over Eden, I was excited to echo Van Trump’s rooftop exercise in architectural criticism. It was not entirely the same — instead of Van Trump’s work martinis, I opted for coffee.
From the overlook, a remarkable Lawrenceville panorama unfolds, with the dense residential fabric, the Arsenal Middle School, the 40th Street Bridge, and the distant Downtown all visible.
There are so many lessons to learn from here. Arsenal Middle School is really terrific. It understands the monumentality of classical architecture even as it reflects the streamlined velocity of the machine age, with nods to the functional necessities of education. It presents details from both fine arts tradition and the industrial workshop, thoughtfully designed at every scale.
And yet residential Lawrenceville teaches great lessons from completely different parts of the urban architecture handbook. Unpretentious, modestly sized houses are utterly charming on their own terms. The narrow alleys and sidewalks comprise comforting, human-scaled urbanism that the SUV-era can’t even comprehend. Their presence over time, interwoven with community spirit and generously brushed with the patina of history (with apologies for some notable vinyl siding and shrunken windows), elude contemporary tastes and code requirements.
So it’s especially horrifying that the dominant feature of the Lawrenceville panorama seen from Tryp is the 201 Arsenal Condominiums by Milhaus. They are a dreadful and sprawling blot on what should be a postcard city view.
When the Phase I designs were first unveiled, I thought that maybe they wouldn’t be so ruinous. The Butler Street facade does reflect an effort to make the gargantuan complex look like a composition of smaller, more traditional elements.
But who are we kidding? For starters, you cannot build today’s cash-cow building types as if they were from a century or more ago. The rendering might vaguely evoke the visual rhythms of the traditional neighborhood streetscape, but the square footage requirements for current retail and residential markets, the tight margins of construction budgets, and the cheap quality of materials profoundly alter the overall experience. On the street, it’s a placeless suburban shopping center, and some of the off-street townhouse facades are creepy, not charming.
Whether you put Gramma’s outfit on a wolf or on a mixed-use urban residential, office, and retail complex, the disguise is fooling no one.
That is, of course, if there is a disguise at all. Those longitudinal façades perpendicular to Butler Street, the sprawling crapscape most visible from Tryp? They don’t look designed at all. It’s as if someone took marketing-driven apartment plans and covered them with whatever windows and enclosure fit the available dimensions.
This is not simply some pearl-clutching lament of taste. It’s that art is a lens through which to appreciate the spirit of the place. What the contrasting approaches of vernacular Lawrenceville and high architecture buildings like Arsenal Middle School have in common is an inherent sense of human dignity driving the aesthetic experience.
The 201 Milhaus condos have grabbed a huge swath of land and dressed it in the architecture of thoughtless and cynical profiteering.
It’s alarming that these buildings are so bad, that they so completely despoil what would otherwise be a great panorama, that there are so many buildings of similarly greedy, point-missing superficiality going up everywhere when the lessons of good architecture, in so many varieties, are within plain sight.
It’s enough to drive an architecture critic to drink.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article falsely stated that 201 Arsenal Condominiums was designed by Dwell Design Studio. The buildings were developed by Milhaus. Dwell Design Studio has been selected for Phase 2 of the multi-phase 201 Arsenal project, which is still awaiting construction. Check pghcitypaper.com next week for more info on Dwell Design Studio's plans for Phase 2 of the project.