Entering the exhibition HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern, visitors were caught between two black-and-white photographs by Edward Massery. To the right was a photograph of the Civic Arena—the Igloo, as it was nicknamed by Pittsburghers—before it was torn down, rising in a luminous dome, its perfect curvature made even more beautiful by the stubborn verticality of other modernist buildings behind it (Figure 1). To the left was a photo of the Civic Arena halfway through demolition (Figure 2). Here the Igloo is reduced to a mere quadrant, which, while still rising majestically, now looks like a single fin of the Sydney Opera House marooned in downtown Pittsburgh. You might say that the rest of the exhibition lived, indeed thrived, in the uneasy tension between these twin photographs: the potential seduction of the grand architectural gesture foreclosed by the disenchantment with modernism; the boosterism of urban redevelopment shadowed by the shameful legacy of uprooted communities and cultural fragmentation; and the heroic rhetoric of Pittsburgh's Renaissance smacking of maudlin sloganeering.
The exhibition was the first of a series of “laboratories” that the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art will be organizing in coming years. The inaugural theme of urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh between 1945 and 1975 gave a sense of the ambitious scope of the forthcoming laboratories. Curated by over,under, a multidisciplinary studio located in Boston, the exhibition was organized into three broad themes and spaces. “Info Space” presented the major sites in Pittsburgh where urban redevelopment schemes were implemented. “Media”—which took up the most space in the exhibition—showcased architectural and documentary photography, short films, trade and popular magazines, and press clippings that either promoted or critiqued the processes of urban redevelopment. “Working Space” featured a discursive forum: from September to December 2015 it was utilized by a team of architecture students from Carnegie Mellon University who worked on a project to redesign the Allegheny Center in Pittsburgh. From January to May the space hosted monthly “salons” where current issues pertaining to urban development were debated.
In keeping with its mission of experimentation, the exhibition was arranged as a series of poster boards such as one might find in a planner or architect's office—sketches, master plans, diagrams of circulation or program, notes, graphs, and photographs of buildings and construction sites sat cheek by jowl, urging the viewer to craft a larger narrative in which to place them. Together with the palpable energy generated by the architectural studio, this format of presentation made for a dynamic exhibition that resisted the pat conclusions that position postwar urban renewal as either a project of failed modernity or the last gasp of utopian modernism.
“When the air was cleared and the black ugly confusion of the Point was revealed in full sunlight, a civic shudder shook the citizens…. A complete new life, urban reincarnation, was the only hope.” Wall text at the exhibition included this observation by Ralph Griswold, superintendent of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Parks, in 1965 as he witnessed the dramatic reshaping of the city. The “Info Space” section of the exhibition featured the main Pittsburgh sites that were transformed by urban redevelopment, such as East Liberty (remade as a commercial core), Oakland (boosted as an educational and cultural hub), the Lower Hill (transformed into a “cultural acropolis”), Allegheny Center (a superblock of commercial and residential buildings), the Point (developed as a public park and commercial and residential units), and the Golden Triangle (where the corporate headquarters of Alcoa and U.S. Steel were built). This section demonstrated the heady rhetoric of creative destruction and the longing for an ordered city representative of the rationality of modernism.
“JOBS—Give to All and All at Once” reads a sign held up by a young African American boy whose look of steely resolve belies his age of six or seven years. This photograph by Charles “Teenie” Harris in the “Media” section was one of many that portrayed the social impact of urban redevelopment in Pittsburgh. Mindy Thompson Fullilove has used the term root shock to describe the cultural, psychological, and social price paid largely by African Americans as their communities were declared blighted and torn down to make way for superblocks and large-scale development.1 Here too the exhibition succeeded in presenting a nuanced version of community resilience by including the work of urban planner and activist Troy West, who countered top-down schemes of urban renewal with community-based alternatives. We see here the bold beginnings of participatory planning, which, although most closely associated with Jane Jacobs, found passionate advocates and practitioners across the United States, including in Pittsburgh.
A note written by a student and pinned to the working boards of the studio read, “Take back the street with sidewalks and bike lanes.” In the fall and winter of 2015, eleven architecture students nobly wrestled with the redesign of the Allegheny Center—a midcentury intervention that razed more than five hundred structures to build two large office towers, residential units (townhomes and apartment complexes), a shopping mall, and an enormous underground parking garage. Current underutilization of these buildings and the vast public spaces between them has provoked a serious debate regarding the future of the Allegheny Center and how it might be brought back to life. The students’ design solutions included diversifying the area's offerings (bars, theaters, food trucks, and street fairs would extend the utility and the identity of the neighborhood beyond its corporate nine-to-five image) and relieving the emphasis on automobile traffic with pedestrian sidewalks, bike-share stations, and bike paths. It was heartening to see the sensitivity to locale in terms of climate and culture, human scale, and the quotidian needs of users in these proposed interventions.
A half century after the high moment of postwar urban redevelopment in the United States, Pittsburgh finds itself once more at the cusp of radical change. Pundits and boosters predict another renaissance for the city as it reinvents itself as a hub for educational, research, and creative industries in the greater Mid-Atlantic region. Marginalized communities once more try to stave off gentrification and the inevitable displacement that follows in its wake. The success of this exhibition was that it combined a celebration of future alternatives and cautionary tales of past hubris, offering a commendation of big ideas as well as a serious critique of their translation from paper and model to street and neighborhood. To exit the exhibition, visitors had to pass once again between the two Massery photographs of the Igloo—reminders that the perfection of architectural geometry has no choice but to make room for the messy, surprising, and unexpected delights of urban life.