A new exhibition in Pittsburgh explores the modernist past of the city's architecture, and the way forward.
For a native New Yorker, the geography of Pittsburgh is something of a challenge. We are conditioned by our city: uptown is north and downtown is south. In Pittsburgh, though, if you study the map, uptown is east and downtown is west and the tangle of three rivers—the Monongahela and the Allegheny converging to form the Ohio River—results in a hilly landscape of North Side and North Shore and South Side and South Shore neighborhoods, connected by 446 bridges, more than Venice, which only has 409.
Known as “The City of Bridges” and “The Steel City,” Pittsburgh saw early and rapid industrial growth in the downtown area and along the riverbanks that strengthened its economy but resulted in citywide environmental and social catastrophes. Most notable among them was the dark smoke that hung over the city, keeping out the sunlight and covering everything, buildings and people alike, with a layer of soot.
After World War II, Pittsburgh politicians, civic leaders and architects embarked on a brave program of urban revitalization. For two decades in the 1950s and 1960s, they turned their lens on urban planning and architecture, convinced that only an alliance of the three forces could save their town. The result of their efforts, the First Renaissance era, transformed vast sections of the city, serving as a model for development of many other US cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York.
Pittsburgh proved to be a leader, providing a modernist template for other American cities that sought to reverse the flight to the suburbs, which resulted in population decline and loss of tax revenues in the city centers. With help from the federal government, urban renewal projects sprouted up in vast areas of the city—in The Point, the Golden Triangle, the Lower Hill, Allegheny Center, Oakland and East Liberty. Under the leadership of Mayor David L. Lawrence and banker Richard King Mellon, industrial buildings at the prime real estate where the three rivers converged were demolished and Point State Park was built. New highways and parks altered the infrastructure, and new buildings, mostly commercial but also civic and residential, transformed the architectural landscape. The Renaissance did not stem the flight to the suburbs, but it did create a vibrant commercial and civic city. From the mid-‘70s through the ‘80s, under Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri, a second Renaissance saw the development of many large corporate skyscrapers. Today, spurred by the growth of the Tech and Health Care industries, the city is again seeing a flurry of construction activity, much of which is bringing residents back to the center city.