Imagining the Modern 04 Exhibition

Pittsburgh emerged from World War II as one of the richest cities, poised to grow. Pittsburgh now had the will and the means to redevelop large areas of the city core, which were now considered “blighted”. Fresh off beating the Nazis, urban design seemed like a comparatively easy problem to solve. As we now know, this was not the case. Evidence of our missteps persist to this day, reminding residents of gentrifying neighborhoods to be skeptical about large scale development. By the 1970s, Pittsburgh’s renaissance was all over, nearly as quickly as it began. Just as people were realizing the follies of urban design, the population began a decades-long slide that persists to this day. Now, we’ve come full circle. The structures that were built to replace the blighted buildings have become blighted themselves, and are now set to be re-redeveloped. These were the subject matter of Imagining the Modern.

If I had to use one word to describe the exhibition, it would be “density”. There are many types of media on display; historical photos, print media from the time period, maps developed specifically for the exhibition, drawings, models, video. The largest room is a studio displaying student work, looking at a hypothetical redevelopment of Allegheny Center. I like the inclusion of student work, as a nod to the idea that there is a lot to learn & be explored when it comes to large-scale urban development. As a former architecture student myself, I was impressed with the level of work the students were able to achieve over the course of what I presume to be one semester. I also liked the presentation of the work, which resembled a mock architecture studio. Models made of humble materials were placed next to sketches, diagrams, and other hand-made documents, which spoke to an investigation still in progress.


Some current architecture students were less enthusiastic.


“I am an architect … Models do not impress”

“I am an architect student. I like the work but question if it is museum worthy”

“As an architecture student, I am slightly unimpressed. When do my models get to be in a museum?”

To be fair, I know that the floors in the Heinz Architectural Center are waxed daily, which might explain how so many architecture students ended up butthurt. Also, I’d say to the curators that if you’re going to provide a fruit platter, make sure the grapes aren’t sour. I also found the ambient music to be distracting.


While I’m being a smartass, I might as well refute a few more.

“It’s all good, but I wish there were more information.”

What, like an entire book?


“Stop cutting down trees and putting buildings & developments up. Save the environment!”

Thanks Pollyanna, but you do realize that these are modifications to existing buildings, right? Most of which include expansion of the already ample green space on the site?

“Quit talking. Like every sentence ends with a question.”

!!! … point taken.

Moving on to the rest of the exhibition, there are two large smaller galleries devoted to source materials of the time period. The first draws on photographs taken by Pittsburgh photographers, including some from the Teeny Harris archive. There were hundreds of photographs, clearly annotated by a handheld key that you could carry around the gallery. It was a very effective presentation method which I preferred to  a handful of larger, more carefully selected images. I would have liked more explanation of the photos on the key, which in most cases included only the photographer and location of each image.

Another smaller gallery was devoted to print media of the time. The walls of the gallery were adorned with archival newspaper pages (which is where I got the Jumble from the Intro post). On the gallery floor were furniture pieces housing books and magazines, some of which could be picked up and paged through.


Because of my recent focus on the Lower Hill, I spent most of my energy looking at articles printed around the time of the first redevelopment, which included the Civic Arena. I was surprised by a couple of things. First, at how quickly opinions about the Civic Arena were rendered. The development had limited, skeptical support from some in the community at first, but within the first few years whatever goodwill there was had evaporated. I was under the impression that that support had eroded over decades. With the local public now against any further development of the site the full extent of the master plan, which was to include luxury highrises and an arts center, could not be realized.


These projects as proposed would not have done anything to serve the community, but I do wonder what might be different if those buildings stood today. Could the arts center and apartments have later modified their mission and facilities to better serve the community? Or would they have met the same fate as the Civic Arena?

But what’s most disheartening to me is how similar the conversations that happened then are to those that happen now regarding the same site.


I’d like to think that the conversation might have evolved, that we’d found answers to questions that keep coming up. But we are over 50 years removed now, and the flat circle of time, like a vinyl record, has come around again and the same songs are playing.


Beyond the Lower Hill, I’m always surprised to see how the Point looked not so long ago, with crossings of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers landing where the fountain is now. It’s equally surprising to see some of the unrealized designs for what is now Point State Park. Concepts for the Point and other areas of Pittsburgh were once commissioned by Edgar Kaufmann and displayed in his titular department store.

ITM03-KaufmannsThis design by Frank Lloyd Wright would be the first interaction between he and Kaufmann, the beginning of a relationship that would ultimately produce one of the most famous architecture projects of all time: Fallingwater.


Other proposals were equally “big” and conceptual, while others (similar to discussions of the Lower Hill) used language eerily similar to what we hear today.


I want to dwell on the idea of a major retailer running an architecture exhibition for just a bit longer. I can’t imagine if something similar would happen today.


I appreciate such a thorough exhibit and I wish I could have spent more time absorbing it. I wish the same for any aspiring urban designers and policy makers, so that future changes don’t come at the expense of Pittsburgh’s architecture and people.


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