After years of combating its soot-covered-metropolis-on-the-skids image, Pittsburgh is on the march. It has remade itself from a smoky blue-collar steel town into a green white-collar information hub that lures tech companies like Google and Uber. The resurgent Pittsburgh was named America’s most livable city last year by the Economist, and, for the first time in decades, it’s a place people go to by choice rather than necessity.
But this isn’t Pittsburgh’s first rebrand. From the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, the city underwent what it still calls the Renaissance, a period that saw the first moves to reclaim its natural resources from mills and railroads, a boom in new construction, and an arms-wide-open embrace of urban renewal. It also displaced thousands of families, disrupted a thriving downtown, and accelerated the flight to the suburbs.
This complicated legacy is the focus of the ambitious exhibition HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern, on view at the Carnegie Museum of Art through May 2, 2016, that forces a reconsideration of this divisive postwar moment in Pittsburgh while orienting the city in a broader, national dialogue about Modernism.
“[This conversation] is very much in the air, and it’s a huge topic for Pittsburgh that hasn’t actually been investigated in great depth before,” says Raymund Ryan, curator of the Heinz Architectural Center.
The show is curated by members of the Boston firm over,under, which recently completed a research project exploring Brutalism and the concrete architecture of the so-called New Boston. The curators were interested in exploring the “contested legacy of urbanism,” over,under’s Michael Kubo says, and that naturally led them to look at other cities. When they encountered Pittsburgh, they found a “different, more dynamic story.”
“Here, it’s very much about buildings that are emblematic of their material producers,” Kubo says, citing the U.S. Steel tower and the Alcoa Building (both by Harrison & Abramovitz). “The scope of transformation here was different. The fact that it was called the Renaissance — it’s not referred to that way in Boston.”
The term “Renaissance” was earned through building tall, unique buildings in downtown Pittsburgh and beautifying its grimy environs with projects like Point State Park, an initiative that reshaped an industrial wasteland at the confluence of the city’s three rivers into a civic jewel. But Pittsburgh was also reshaped by developments like the Civic Arena (James Mitchell and Deeter & Ritchie), a UFO of a building (capped by the world’s first retractable roof) that landed on the lower Hill District in 1961, displacing 1,551 families, the vast majority African American.
Imagining the Modern considers all facets of Modernism in Pittsburgh with an eye toward bringing in as many voices as possible. The curatorial team does this by outlining both realized and unrealized projects (like Frank Lloyd Wright’s ambitious proposal for the Point), then mirroring that history with a timeline tracking broader developments. Three media rooms present a trove of primary materials, including newspapers and magazines, brochures, short films, and documentary photographs. The show concludes in a studio set up in the galleries where architecture students from Carnegie Mellon University work on redevelopment proposals for Allegheny Center on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Over the seven-month installation, new materials will be added and the museum and curators will engage with visitors to capture memories and opinions, which will feed back into the exhibition.
“We thought of the show as producing an archive, similar to some of the work we had done in Boston, to restore a lot of the complexity of the debates that were happening around it, for good and bad,” Kubo says.
Underpinning all of this is an advocacy for the built environment Modernism created. More and more of these buildings are disappearing. Chicago saw the destruction of Prentice Hospital (Bertrand Goldberg), while Washington D.C. lost Araldo Cossutta’s Christian Science Church. The flashpoint in Pittsburgh was the Civic Arena, which was torn down in 2012. Some called the demolition an act of cultural vandalism; others the first step in correcting a momentous historical wrong. The only point of agreement is that Modernism’s legacy — locally and nationally — is far from settled.
Imagining the Modern was conceived as a voice in that debate. And by presenting a wide range of materials, both pro and con, the curators hope to provide “scaffolding” for citizens to engage with it, too.
“A lot of the discussion about buildings and sites from that era starts from the negative, with the assumption that they're worthless,” Kubo says. “We’re trying to start in a more neutral location. We know it’s going to produce a lot of reaction and that’s the idea. You want that.”