The Museum as Laboratory
University students reimagine one of Pittsburgh’s least-loved examples of modern architecture as part of a unique Museum of Art exhibition.
In an experimental exhibition exploring Pittsburgh’s modern architecture and postwar redevelopment, the most striking aspect is not the breadth of archival material nor the glimpses of a city that never left the drawing board. It’s a cluster of 10 desks.
Using the Heinz Architectural Center as their classroom, CMU students (left to right) Horace Hou, Kwanpo Cheng, Sabrina Estudillo, and Liz Madigan pore over maps of Allegheny Center.
On an early-December afternoon, undergraduate architecture students from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) are gathered around these desks, flipping through pages of drawings, wielding an array of pens and markers. Typically focused on stand-alone buildings, the 19-week urban design studio course offers 11 students the opportunity to develop large-scale solutions. Their charge: reimagine one of Pittsburgh’s least-loved examples of modern architecture, Allegheny Center on the North Side.
Making the students a living part of HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern exhibition, on view at Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center through May 2, is all about encouraging dialogue, says Rami el Samahy, an associate professor at CMU’s School of Architecture. He is also a principal at the Boston-based architecture and design studio over,under, which designed and curated the show.
“An important part of what we do [as architects] is tell stories,” says el Samahy, “and I think we don’t do enough learning about how to tell a story.”
Visitors to the exhibition were asked to leave comments or questions for the students, who penned answers and posted them on a nearby bulletin board. Sometimes curious passersby would stop and ask the students about what they were up to. Their work—quick sketches, rolled-up plans—are on display for anyone to see. The openness of this learning process, for the students and community members, is exactly the opposite of how Allegheny Center originally came to be in 1966.
“It was essentially a top-down idea of urbanization,” says Raymund Ryan, the museum’s curator of architecture.
“An important part of what we do [as architects] is tell stories, and I think we don’t do enough learning about how to tell a story.”
- RAMI EL SAMAHY, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT CARNEGIE MELLON UNIVERSITY’S SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE
In the years following World War II, city governments across the nation were tearing down and rebuilding large swaths of the urban fabric with little, if any, input from the communities in which these dramatic transformations were taking place. The burst of urban renewal was intended to shore up cities against the loss of millions of veterans and their families—and the corresponding tax revenues—to the newly minted suburbs. The Federal Housing Act of 1949 allocated funds to remake areas determined to be slums. In Pittsburgh, the wrecking balls went to work.
The lifespan of Allegheny Center follows the arc of a lot of urban renewal projects: eagerly anticipated, briefly lauded, and ultimately decried. Thirty-six acres of the North Side, including 518 buildings, were cleared for the development that included a new pedestrian mall and boasted easy access to highways and tenants such as Sears and Woolworth. But by the early 1990s, Allegheny Center was largely abandoned: it lost its anchor tenants and was converted into office space.
In an exciting turn of events for the students, shortly after el Samahy decided they would focus their efforts on Allegheny Center—versus the other projects and neighborhoods highlighted in the show, including Downtown’s Gateway Center, the Lower Hill, East Liberty, and Oakland— New York–based developer Faros Properties announced it would remake the property into a hub for technology and innovation. The imminent transformation of the space created a different sense of responsibility for the project, says fifth-year student Anum Shah.
“It was a lot more real,” says Shah. “There’s actually construction happening, we’re meeting with people who are a part of the site and really invested in it.”
Before ever lifting a pencil, the students of the urban design lab got to know their space. Using informal games, el Samahy had his students choose a random path through the site so they could encounter it as humans and not architects.
“It was a lot emptier than we expected,” recalls Sabrina Estudillo, a fifth-year student.
“We spent a couple days on the site and just walked around, interviewed some people, took pictures, sketched.”
When looking at the entirety of Allegheny Center, the students broke into three groups and began to analyze what the site could be and how to achieve it. They wrestled with the question of how best to revive the location: Should it be torn down? Or simply amended? In doing so, they tackled the same questions city planners and architects did 50 years ago, says el Samahy.
“The justifications are different,” he adds, referring to advocates for demolition. “When you hear that kind of language today, it’s more, ‘We’re restoring the old fabric.’ But the net effect is the same. You are removing a layer of the city in favor of the one you and your generation believe is the right thing to do.”
Ultimately, the student group self-named Project Ampersand decided to leave all the buildings intact but erect pathways through the area to create a clear sense of connection; Team Flexhub used a speculative bid for the Pittsburgh 2024 Summer Olympics to imagine a transformed Allegheny Center that provided new venues for the entire city; Team Intersection wanted to reintegrate the development with the rest of the city and so emphasized pedestrian, cycling, and automobile pathways. Overall, the students’ work imagines a future for Allegheny Center that reflects the needs of its surrounding communities.
“People like cities for what they are as a whole,” says fifth-year student Liz Madigan. “Not just the buildings but the little moments that happen in between buildings. [It’s about] how people move through [the city], what people see first, and how people interact.” Curator of architecture Ryan says the iterative process of the urban design studio, open to the public, mirrors that ever-changing reality of the city.
“Things are never static, whether it’s changing seasons or economic realities or social realities. The more we can communicate that the better,” he says.
Although the students are no longer working in the galleries, their final proposals for Allegheny Center remain on display, available to visitors who are encouraged to leave feedback.
Upcoming HACLab Pittsburgh salon-style discussions with experts in the field are free and open to the public from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Heinz Architectural Center. March 10: Preserving Modernism; April 7: Our Modern City; April 28: Where to Next?