HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern is the current exhibition at the Heinz Architectural Center (HAC) at Carnegie Museum of Art. This sense of exhibition as lab reflects, we hope, an understanding of architecture and urbanism as phenomena undergoing frequent change, and of museums as sites for engagement with local and global audiences. Directed by Boston-based architecture firm over,under, HACLab Pittsburgh has been enlivened by lectures, public discussions (“salons”), and now this collaboration with Quantum Theatre on that classic of modern literature, The Master Builder. Ibsen reminds us that it not only in our current era of “starchitects” that architects have been associated with noteworthy egos.
In architecture, modernism is often identified with the postwar period. Its origins date back of course to the turn of the century when art and literature, science and industry were all undergoing seismic change. Old ways or patterns of doing things were abandoned in favor of functionalism and greater honesty, whether banning decoration from buildings or examining one’s own inner self.
Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern investigates Pittsburgh in the context of postwar American history. As modernism won over U.S. design and business elites, socio-economic forces demanded efficient infrastructure, modern offices, better housing, and a cleaner environment. Urban renewal was however later held responsible for obliterating the urban fabric in pursuit of rationalization and metropolitan glory. Today this legacy provides lessons that are unsettling as well as inspirational.
Key architects active in mid-century Pittsburgh included Harrison & Abramovitz (Alcoa; U.S. Steel), Gordon Bunshaft (Heinz), Curtis & Davis (United Steelworkers Building, formerly IBM), and Pittsburgh’s own Dahlen Ritchey (Civic Arena; Three Rivers Stadium; Allegheny Center). Many schemes were of course unrealized, the most dramatic being consecutive proposals for the Point by Frank Lloyd Wright, a man, one might add, seldom lacking in confidence.
During the first phase of Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern, our galleries at the museum hosted students from the Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture. Led by over,under principal Rami el-Samahy, this CMU studio challenged a dozen students to investigate the legacy and potential of Allegheny Center today.
The CMU students documented the North Side context, analyzing the postwar motivations for urban renewal and assessing the current situation. They then worked in teams of four to determine new urban frameworks. Ultimately, these emerging architects focused on specific designs for Allegheny Center, now temporary home to Halvard Solness and Quantum Theatre.
We’re looking to seeing how Karla and her crew envisage Ibsen in postwar Pittsburgh! Come visit us at the Carnegie before May 3 to reacquaint yourself with our recent history and view prospects for the future. Collect the free broadsheets that document over,under’s research, including interviews with key players from the period.
Modernism, it seems, has never really gone away.