While it could have been more exciting architecturally, the new August Wilson Center connects. | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

While it could have been more exciting architecturally, the new August Wilson Center connects.

click to enlarge Street smart: a view of the August Wilson Center from Liberty Avenue.
Street smart: a view of the August Wilson Center from Liberty Avenue.

On Sept. 3, landscape architect Walter Hood presented his landscape and urban design master plan for the Hill District. The plan was sponsored by the Find the Rivers community coalition and prepared in collaboration with Pittsburgh's Studio for Spatial Practice. The audience was a diverse group, drawing from overlapping demographics of Hill residents, design professionals, and culture mavens. Together, they nearly filled the theater of the soon-to-open August Wilson Center for African American Culture, designed by architect Allison Williams, design principal of the San Francisco office of Perkins + Will.

Despite some advances in recent years, the design professions sometimes seem to have all the racial diversity of, say, the U.S. Senate. So when these two African-American designers with national professional recognition converge (Williams' building was her stand-in), it's an event in Pittsburgh. (It's also just another day at the U.C. Berkeley faculty club: Hood teaches there, and Williams serves on a university planning committee.) 

Yet this convergence also embodies some contradictions familiar to the Obama era. Individuals producing design work can excel or falter without race as a consideration. Yet the inescapable history, even the present, of racial discrimination leads to paradoxes that are difficult to ignore when African-American culture and history are foremost in the design briefs.

Consider Hood's master plan for the Hill. His analysis was methodical and thorough, his delivery erudite yet engaging. The specific proposals near the end could have used a bit more detail about implementation. (How would he use plants to reconnect streets with larger greenspaces?) Still, here's a practitioner in especially strong command of his discipline. He should be hired for more in Pittsburgh than this study and a landscaped walkway at the new Penguins arena. 

Yet Hood's study, funded through the Hill's Community Benefits Agreement with the Penguins, might not have happened at all without a tooth-and-nail fight for a fraction of the public funds that sports owners expect as a matter of course. The Hill, even with instances of promising development in recent years, deserves much more resources to address its empty lots and abandoned buildings.

click to enlarge An interior view of the August Wilson Center.
An interior view of the August Wilson Center.

What about a cultural center? From the outset of the 2003 design competition, then-executive director Neil Barclay was firmly convinced that that the African American Cultural Center needed to be Downtown, not in the Hill itself. I was skeptical, but arriving for Hood's lecture and seeing the visual connection between street-level pedestrian traffic and building activity began to convince me that Barclay was correct. A cultural center fits among cultural centers, and might be a mismatch for the Hill-as-neighborhood strategies Hood recommends. 

Similarly, Barclay's expressed desire to choose Williams' comparatively restrained proposal over other more adventurous options seems shrewder now than it might have at the time. Our architecturally adventurous convention center has experienced structural collapses during both construction and use. And the Cultural Trust's ambitious Riverfront Development project collapsed -- financially, before the placement of a single steel beam.

Williams' building, by comparison, is a restrained box (on a triangular site) with a few notable flourishes. The widely discussed prow-like element facing Liberty Avenue does act as an effective sign, blissfully without text, to beckon conventioneers. Inside, the center's theater -- a showcase space in the building -- works nicely. Its oval shape is pleasantly intimate. Its wavy grooved walls are compellingly tactile, and its dark palette of green and purple is jazzy but elegant. The textured-masonry wall along the grand stair is also an engaging gesture. 

Still, in some areas, the structure is very much a diffident vitrine. It provides drama only in the large-scale spaces, but not as much in material, detail or processional sequence. I frequently want for this building to be more exciting, and to feel as though ideas about architecture and design permeate its entire fabric instead of certain parts. Then again, I want Michael Graves' O'Reilly Theater to have paid more attention to function and less to a couple of overplayed postmodern witticisms.

Importantly, the Wilson Center has a permanent exhibit, not yet open, documenting African-American culture in Pittsburgh. I hope that among the portrayals of past and present greats, the legacy of shameful post-war Urban Renewal-based destruction is clearly rendered. Surely the Wilson Center will be an effective liaison to people who might not otherwise venture into a neighborhood whose jazz-club heyday is long past. A diverse crowd at Hood's lecture suggests such a possibility, which will figure significantly in the building's success.


The August Wilson Center for African American Culture grand opening, featuring the Sphinx Chamber Orchestra. 5:30 p.m. Thu., Sept. 17. 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $50-500. 412-258-2692 or www.augustwilsoncenter.org

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