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Re-inventing Carnegie Science Center             

By Ellen S. Wilson

“We’re not just selecting a form, but an architect who listens.”

                                                               - Seddon Bennington

            One look at the Architect Competition Brief for the expansion of Carnegie Science Center and it was clear that the selection committee members wanted much more than just a container for human activity.  They wanted to hold on to what has worked so well despite having outgrown its original building, and then make it bigger and better.  They wanted a new icon for a city in the process of reinventing itself. To get those results, they had to first find an architect who could build not just a building, but a relationship.

 “This is not about which model is the most seductive,” emphasized Seddon Bennington, director of Carnegie Science Center, as the competition was drawing to a close.  “How will each one work for our programs?  We want the architects to discuss the quality of experience for their spaces, and not simply what goes where.  We’re not just selecting a form, but an architect who listens.”

            The challenge put before the architects included the following requirements:  Consider the audience, diverse in age as well as economic, cultural, and educational backgrounds.  Make it inspiring, participatory, vibrant, exciting and fun, while encouraging individual concentration and focus.  Integrate indoor and outdoor programming.  Provide an exterior environment that is both welcoming for foot traffic and eye-catching from afar.  Celebrate Pittsburgh as a world leader in science, technology and education.  Exemplify advanced green technology. And finally take into account the high number of rainy, snowy, icy, or merely gloomy days.  This may be a lot to ask, but Bennington thinks we deserve it.

            There are many ways to find an architect, but Bennington and the Science Center board of trustees decided that an international architectural competition would not only fit their needs best, but would have the best results for the people of the region.  

“We’re clear about our own program,” Bennington said.  “But the region has a program, too.  We felt we could raise the bar in terms of expectations for what else is built on the North Shore.” 

            Pittsburgh is increasingly becoming an architectural showplace, and this is a good thing – it makes the city more of a tourist destination, which brings in dollars that improve our quality of life.  If we see ourselves as residents of the global village, then talented young people will find their future lies here, rather than in New York or Paris.  And that means that big corporations who like to hire outside talent, designers or consultants, will find the people they are looking for closer to home.  All of those incremental successes will banish Pittsburgh’s famous inferiority complex, hopefully forever.  This is not too much to ask of a building, if the building is part of something bigger.

“The Science Center occupies a key piece of real estate in terms of the future of the city’s riverfronts,” says Davitt Woodwell, Executive Director of the Riverlife Taskforce and a member of the advisory group helping with the selection of the architect. “There is an area from the Point to the West End Bridge, on both sides of the Ohio, that has not gained as much attention as some other sections, and the possibilities there are really phenomenal for redefining how Pittsburgh thinks of itself as a waterfront city.

            “The city of Pittsburgh alone has 37 miles of riverfront.  To put that in perspective, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which gets so much attention, really is only about three miles of total waterfront.  We’re not going to turn everything into another Inner Harbor, but there are lots of opportunities now to make a once-in-a-century decision about how we're going to develop and use the rivers for commerce, recreation, housing, and natural areas.  This is a chance we haven’t had since sometime in the 1800s.”

The Zen of Selection, or, the Process becomes the Result

            “Creating great buildings and spaces is a complex and somewhat magical process,” says Paul Rosenblatt, a principal at Damianos + Anthony architects and a member of the advisory group.  Choosing an architect for this project, an architect who will be our partner and get to know us, has been dynamic –  a conversation not just between the architects and Bennington, but also involving the advisory committee, local architects, the media, and the people of the region.

            “There is an inherent conflict between our need to make a confidential decision in the context of a disciplined competition and our determination to make the process as public, as open, as we possibly can,” Bennington explains.

For this competition, Rosenblatt provided an initial list of 20 architects for the selection committee to consider.   “We intentionally sought architects that were known internationally for their innovative approach to designing buildings that create an impact,” Bennington said early in the process.  “We want a signature look for the re-invented Center.  We want to go beyond functionality to an interior and exterior that matches the dynamic nature of our programs.” 

Nine of those 20 architects came to Pittsburgh, and of the nine, five were asked to submit concepts for the re-invention.  “Each of them could do a splendid job,” says Bennington, “but we were trying to identify those that related to us in a special way.”

            Each of the five concepts submitted was very different from the others, another benefit of a competition.  Competitions, Bennington says, stretch not only the prospective client’s thinking but the architects’ as well, forcing them to go beyond their previous work and come up with innovations that they can then draw on in future projects.  On top of that, competitions keep the public interested.  This is one more opportunity for the Science Center to educate.

            “Contemporary architecture is always controversial, like contemporary art,” Bennington says.  “A degree of controversy is always a component, because it stretches the conventional.  It can lead some people to opposition, but the more we can turn that to open interest, the more we’re doing our job.”         

            The public was invited to give its opinions of the designs through the Science Center web site, and many people accepted the invitation with gusto.  While some comments were succinct, others went on for pages. 

“The advisory committee is reading all of the comments,” Bennington says. “It is important to know the public reaction and preferences, to ensure that if we differ, we understand exactly why we differ.  Public involvement requires us to be doubly sure of the final choice and to explain our decision.”  

Early in February, the field of architects was narrowed to three:  Daniel Libeskind, Jean Nouvel, and Ben van Berkel of UN Studio.  They were asked to refine their concepts to show how their designs would work with the existing building in order to reinvent the Science Center and make it exciting and accessible to the community as a whole.  The timetable calls for ground to be broken in 2003, and the newly expanded Science Center to open in 2004.

More is . . . More

            “We’re turning school groups away now,” Bennington says.  “The building is far too crowded for the kind of quality experience we ought to be offering our public.”  And yet the expansion,  which adds 160,000 square feet of exhibit space, is about more than size.

            An outdoor  Discovery Park will be a year-round family destination that not only establishes a new green space in the formerly industrial riverfront, but also provides a new connection to the neighborhood.  It won’t have a fence around it, Bennington promises.  “Parks say very strongly, ‘community connection.’” 

            A WWII Destroyer Escort, the Stewart, will dock alongside the USS Requin, providing not only 200 more spaces for the popular “Submarine Overnighter"  program, but a lot more ways to study such principles as displacement, buoyancy, and hydrodynamics, as well as metallurgy, chemistry, and history.  The ship will enhance the Science Center’s connection to the riverfront, and tie in naturally with the area’s history, since ships of this type were built in the area and Allegheny County has the second highest per capita number of WWII veterans in the country.

One new permanent exhibit, UPMC SportsWorks, will open temporarily in the building adjacent to the Science Center in time for football season. The dozens of activities relevant to the region’s love for sports – such as virtual snowboarding, golf and basketball, a climbing wall, and a unicycle on a 15-foot-high beam – illustrate balance, center of mass, center of gravity, and other natural laws that athletes make use of .  When the expansion is completed, UPMC SportsWorks will move into the new space.

            And so, in a few years, we’ll have our new building, our children will enjoy even better school trips, and there will be more weekend afternoons when a visit to the Science Center is the thing to do.  But, like all thoughtfully carried- out, creative enterprises, we’ll have more than that.

“The Science Center process has caused many important and caring people to make an extraordinary commitment – reaching for a very high level of design, which has not always been the case in this region,” says Sylvester Damianos, president of Damianos + Anthony and a member of the advisory group.  “This to me is as critical as selecting the right architect. 

“We here in Pittsburgh should not be inhibited by the expectations that we will capture the attention of the world.  It is not and cannot be automatic.  However, with this incredible Pittsburgh site, broad community support, a most thoughtful selection committee, and an excellent pool of talent, we can make a major contribution to the world of science and architecture – and let time and success create the broader stage of recognition.”







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