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Dressed in shades of black with a shock of white hair, Pittsburgh architect Arthur Lubetz looks nothing like his buildings. You know the buildings; they’re the ones that stand in bright colorful contrast to their somewhat plain and predictable neighbors.
Case in point: Sharpsburg Community Library. In 2014, Lubetz and his architectural firm Front Studio took on a modest renovation project. One year and only about $400,000 later, the library was transformed from the inside out. The interior contains industrial elements such as concrete flooring and exposed trusses to reflect the region’s roots, while the exterior’s corrugated metal paneling —painted in not-so-subtle tones of yellow, orange, red, purple, and green—breathes new life into this public space.
“I learned a long time ago,” Lubetz says, “that red paint doesn’t cost any more than beige. Color is a direct link to emotion.”
Inciting an emotional response to architecture is what Lubetz has been doing for the past 50 years. And for 10 weeks this spring, Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center will showcase this work. Action, Ideas, Architecture: Arthur Lubetz/Front Studio opens March 11 and will feature some of the architect’s most recognizable and acclaimed buildings, not to mention a few concepts that never quite materialized—not yet, anyway. Many of the drawings and photographs in the exhibition are on loan from the Architecture Archives at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a key ally in the project.
“I learned a long time ago that red paint doesn’t cost any more than beige. Color is a direct link to emotion.” – Architect Arthur Lubetz
“When the show was first proposed,” Lubetz recalls, “I dismissed the idea because most of our work is low-budget. But I feel very good that they thought it was worthy.”
The fact that Lubetz designs within what’s considered by the industry as modest budgets perhaps makes his creations that much more impressive. “Arthur has always done provocative, adventurous, and substantive work that is important artistically and historically,” says architectural historian and critic Charles Rosenblum.
As the show’s guest curator, Rosenblum is tasked with finding the best way to represent a full and still-active career in a single exhibition. For the past 18 months, he’s been busy gathering drawings, models, computer renderings, photographs, and video interviews to highlight the process and projects that have defined Lubetz’s professional persona over five decades.
It’s a daunting task to be sure, but the subject is a familiar one for Rosenblum. Nearly 30 years ago, he enjoyed a brief stint in Lubetz’s studio. Today they both teach at the School of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon.
That sense of familiarity may be relatable to Pittsburghers. After all, Lubetz is a native son who grew up taking Saturday art classes at the Arts and Crafts Center of Pittsburgh (now Pittsburgh Center for the Arts) and at Carnegie Tech (now CMU). Still, his plan was to become a medical doctor. But along the way, Lubetz reconnected with one of his earliest art teachers, Anita Morgenstern, who introduced him to the artistry in architecture. He credits her as a major force in his life.
Intrigued by the possibilities, Lubetz enrolled in Carnegie Tech’s School of Architecture, and after graduating in 1967 wasted little time before hanging out his shingle under the moniker Lubetz Architects. Some 40 years later, he joined forces with two of his former students to create his current firm, Front Studio, with offices in New York and Pittsburgh.
To this day, Lubetz insists, “Architecture can be an art. It can be an experience. In a museum, people open their mind to be involved, to be moved by the art. People don’t do that with architecture.”
And in his opinion, architecture doesn’t often demand that kind of attention.
“Today, most of the stuff is ordinary, boring, bland, unengaging, with no experiential quality to it,” he asserts.
By contrast, his work, in his words, “screams out to be noticed.” But there’s more to consider than the shock and awe of the bold geometric shapes and startling colors that are his stock and trade. By design, his buildings are “incomplete.”
Ductwork, pipes, and conduits are left uncovered; metal, steel, and concrete are left to wear and take on interesting patinas (discolorizations); straight lines, perfect symmetry, and right angles are sometimes left out of the equation.
Perhaps most importantly, the people who live or work in a particular space are left to reconfigure it to better align with their ever-changing needs. In other words, Lubetz does not view architecture as an absolute, unyielding force that the occupant must adapt to.
Consider the Glass Lofts on Penn Avenue. This green and silver four-story complex, completed in 2010, is home to residential condos and retail shops. According to a Front Studio synopsis, it is also “a space fluid in its being, imperfect and incomplete—waiting to be transformed by the people who will live in and use it.”
“When something is incomplete,” Lubetz adds, “it gets into your imagination, it engages your mind.”
Through the years, Lubetz and company have engaged critics, earning positive reviews in The New York Times, Interior Design, and Metropolitan Home, as well as from the American Institute of Architects, taking home awards for the Glass Lofts, Squirrel Hill Carnegie Library, Sharpsburg Library, and Hartford City Hall Annex and Public Library.
Lubetz has also stirred the imagination of generations of aspiring architects. “I was a little bit intimidated at first,” former student and CMU alumna Nina Barbuto recalls. “It was 2004, and I was like 19 or 20 and my mind was getting blown. He kept telling us that ‘no one cares what you want, they only know what you do.’
“He helped people get out of their brains and into the world. He definitely helped me to define who I’ve become,” she says.
Today, Barbuto is the founder and director of Assemble. Located in Garfield, not far from the Glass Lofts, Assemble is a community space where everyone, but primarily kids, come together to create, experiment, and explore. Barbuto calls her project a kind of social architecture that encourages experiential learning.
Like his classroom lessons, it seems Lubetz’s career enjoys a certain kind of timelessness. As far as he’s concerned, retiring is not an option, and neither is being boring. “I’m willing to be provocative,” he says, “and I always try to have fun.”
These days, Lubetz’s idea of fun is getting involved with the Mattress Factory’s Skyspace addition. Donated by artist James Turrell, the 14-foot-tall, oval-shaped permanent installation is expected to open to the public later this year.
But no matter where or when a Lubetz project may emerge, one thing remains constant, Rosenblum observes: “Arthur creates spaces—and experiences.”
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