The Aspinwall Marina renovation
The Aspinwall Marina renovation

Fisher ARCHitecture teamed in the spring of 2016 with developer, Susan Crookston, and the Aspinwall Riverfront Park, Inc. to renovate the existing Aspinwall Marina into a community Welcome Center that celebrates both nature and Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage.  First we demolished several additions that detracted from the main building and transformed an existing interior boat repair area into an exterior entry.  Then, we renovated the main building, all the while making every effort to open up the spaces to the impressive Allegheny River view.

 

The Aspinwall Marina has been around for generations.  Back when the buildings were constructed the Allegheny River was hugely polluted and no kayakers would dare loading from the docks.  Now the rivers are clean and the marina will continue as a community treasure for generations to come.  Our experience on the project here in the office resembled that of the Aspinwall community at large:  Project manager, Janet Longenecker working with me and with fellow Harvard GSD grad, Jiayu Qin, were able to partake in something larger than ourselves while giving back to the region where we live.

 

In Phase Two, we will plant trees, and add signage and exterior lights. Then we will finish the building interior by adding built-in furniture along with offices and a conference room. The final step of our plan is to remove the entry volume roof altogether and open the structure to the sky! AJ Schwartz and the team at “Environmental Planning and Design” has designed the surrounding park with skill, elegance, and refinement.  Also, many thanks are due to Loftus Engineering and to our contractor, the RD Stewart Company, for making Phase 1 of this remarkable  project happen with strong craft on an extremely tight budget.

 

The Marina was worthy of restoring because its history is important. Ironically, although the huge marina structures, visible from afar, represent Aspinwallers’ connection to the river, local residents did not have access to them.  Now for the first time the public is welcome.   And the buildings are beautiful in their stark way, with spatial configurations and decorations that could not easily have been duplicated. In this case, demolishing a collection of buildings selectively was less harmful than doing nothing. Sometimes complete renovations match neither client’s’ budgets nor their programs; and well-intended projects that clients don’t like are frequently cancelled. If an architect can save part of a site that would otherwise fall into ruin or be entirely demolished and then repurpose the remaining parts so they respond to current needs, then that’s more than OK. And the resulting experiences can be powerful.

 

When a river courses through a plane for six million years, the resulting canyon reveals fossils and minerals. When you subtract the clouds from the sky, the sun shines. In each of these circumstances, subtraction clarifies an entity, laying bare a more natural pre-existing condition. So it is with the Marina. Subtraction reveals essence: The act of demolishing the newer additions has restored the project to a simpler, more natural state. Now the building is free to act both as an object, marking the edge of the water from afar, and also as a filter, creating framed views of its surroundings for visitors.