The holidays, it turns out, are really all about rethinking how we use our buildings. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The holidays, it turns out, are really all about rethinking how we use our buildings.

Manger event: the USX Plaza crche. - BRIAN KALDORF
Manger event: the USX Plaza crche.

Every year during the holidays, familiar debates emerge. Is there a war on Christmas? Is the holiday season too commercialized? The sameness of the arguments is numbing. Can't these people see that Christmas, Hanukkah and the entire gift-giving season are really about reconsidering architecture and urban design in fresh, new ways?

Think about it: Santa comes not through the door, but the chimney. During Christmas, the tree is indoors, not out. And during Hanukkah, the profusion of dreidels means that there's no fighting over gambling licenses, because every house can be a casino. Clearly, a Pittsburgh-specific inquiry into the architecture of the holidays is in order.

Consider the crèche. I am perfectly happy to see nativity scenes in public spaces, as long as other major religions have venues for similar expression. And the nativity scene in the plaza of the USX Tower is a point of special pride for its supporters, because of its size and elaboration (though the claim that it exactly replicates the crèche at the Vatican is not supported by visual evidence). But it's hard not to think of this temporary structure in the context of UPMC, which boldly works to re-brand the adjoining tower in which it has expanding offices while boasting of $618 million in annual profit.

Suddenly, the crèche seems like a monument to the absence of adequate neonatal health care, to say nothing of dignified low-income housing. Now, UPMC's pledge to provide matching funds to the Pittsburgh Promise educational fund seems like so much gold, frankincense and myrrh -- lavish, yes, but chillingly oblivious to the needs staring them in the face.

Then there's the gingerbread house. One of my great pleasures of the holiday season was seeing a small gingerbread version of Henry Hornbostel and Edward B. Lee's City-County Building made with Hershey-bar shutters, toffee masonry and Kit Kat columns, all with surprising accuracy. Hornbostel would have loved everything, except maybe the absence of rum-filled cordials. The delightful creation was made by senior citizens at the Mount Washington and West End Community Centers as part of a competition sponsored by PPG. In fact, in PPG's Wintergarden and some nearby storefronts, hundreds of competing (and mostly much less clever) gingerbread houses are on view. Don't miss the edible Fallingwater, also in the Wintergarden.

Once again, though, vast corporate wealth can't seem to navigate intelligently through civic consciousness and genuine need. A few of these clever structures would be a fun and seasonal exhibit. But to see hundreds of these things, mostly made by earnest but unskilled schoolchildren, is to experience a rather stunning waste of food. Yes, the houses are available for purchase, with proceeds going to charity, but PPG is likely to raise less money on such sales than the makers spent on Necco-wafer roof tiles and coconut snow. The notion of a pleasant secular indulgence is lost when it is blown out of proportion.

Maybe the problem starts with Light Up Night. I have very fond memories, going back decades, of Pittsburgh's mid-November inauguration of the holiday season, and it has always seemed like a joyful and innocuous enterprise to illuminate this handsome city in a unifying celebration. In these days of expensive, polluting energy, however, we are increasingly aware that buildings, through heating, cooling and lighting, account for about 40 percent of our energy use. Flipping on every single available light, for whatever reason, doesn't seem any nobler than denied health care or wasted food.

It's interesting, then, that in addition to celebrating a reconsecrated Temple, Hanukkah rituals memorialize a small portion of sacramental oil that miraculously lasted eight times longer than expected. Is the Hanukkah menorah an annual call to militant nationalism, as some extremists say? Or is it a metaphorical exhortation to use resources wisely to guarantee a secure future? You could similarly ask whether the infant in the manger is the Prince of Peace or an insurgent general in the War on Christmas.

The usefulness of these traditional holiday structures and artifacts is not simply rebuilding them as we do every year, but asking such questions as if we do so for the first time.

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