Pecha Kucha talk: “Reimagining Pittsburgh”

Live at the Carnegie Museum of Art cafe!


The following images depict recent Fisher Architecture projects in which the existing context, be it the natural landscape, an existing building, or a traditional tabletop, is carefully preserved in its original state.  Then new forms are added in such a manner as to complement the existing in unexpected but symbiotic ways.


How odd is it that even as a Pittsburgh bridge may connect one Allegheny Riverbank to another, the crossing experience calls attention to the distance between the two banks? And isn’t it strange that even as a Pittsburgh winter snowfall obscures our view, it throws the city into sharp relief by hiding clutter.


Here’s another paradox:  Only by carefully studying Pittsburgh’s existing context may an architect design new forms for it.  We do not create the world as we go along, we respond to it.  Form is something we end with as the final articulation of a deeper logic. Pittsburgh is our stage and we have the responsibility to direct.


Here is a recent Portuguese project I absolutely love by João Luís Carrilho da Graça that illustrates the concept. In this project, new walls float directly above a ruin. Although the ruin remains untouched, the resulting architecture recreates the spatial characteristics of the old building.


And here is Pittsburgh project undertaken with my encouragement by a group of 3rd year CMU students in which a Ferris wheel rises up through the Mt. Washington coal seam, endlessly replicating the experience of entering our city through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. (The inventor of the wheel, George Ferris, Jr. lived on Arch Street in the Northside!)  The goal is to understand the slopes in a new way. Yet despite the aggressive nature of the proposal, they remain largely untouched.


Billboard House: To illustrate the idea of recycling neglected space in Los Angeles, we added a small Hollywood house to an existing billboard for a competition. The idea is specific to its site because Los Angeles embraces the romance of the automobile, and signs are everywhere. Yet not only does the billboard still function as before, the entire proposal only takes up the space of two super-valuable parking stalls.


Peduto Array : This is an image of a solar panel array designed for Culloden Way on Walnut Street created for Mayor Bill Peduto back when he was our Shadyside City Councilman. The array powers the adjacent buildings and forms a gateway that connects the parking lots beyond to the shopping area. However, the streetscape below remains exactly as it was.


Edgar House: This project brings the concept of a Mt. Washington view platform to Butler and reimagines it as an elliptical green roof that hovers above the earth and mirrors the surrounding woods. Visitors may enter the building through it. After plunging through the soil they expect a cave experience but instead find themselves bathed in natural light.


House of Manna: In this project designed for a Homewood church on Frankstown Avenue, we added a metal panel vestment along with a mural to an abandoned grocery store, transforming it with a single gesture into a representation of freedom and hope for this troubled neighborhood which possesses one of the highest crime rates in Pennsylvania.


PNC Living Wall: When BD&E was asked by PNC Bank for ideas on how to upgrade their downtown site in time for the G20 conference, they reached out to Fisher Architecture. After we learned that one of PNC’s expressed goals was to communicate their respect for the environment, we presented the idea to them of reimagining their logo transformed into plants that would literally grow out of the side of their existing building.


Irwin Table: By now, every designer knows of Nakashima’s famous butterfly-jointed tabletops. In fact, this museum owns a particularly beautiful one. Our thought was to reconsider the way the tops touch the ground. Our computer-generated solution adds a futuristic touch to Vince Gillin’s beautifully crafted top, carefully balancing the old with the new.


EAG House: This South Side home cantilevers nearly seventy feet over the owner’s glass factory below with out actually touching it. Here, we are putting to use the unused space above the owner’s warehouse in this dense urban neighborhood. The radiant heated glass facade communicates the function of the building below as it encloses this reimagined foreman’s shack..


Schultheiss Brewery, Berlin: This idea of preserving the past literally can be put to use at an urban scale. Here is my watercolor painting illustrating Frederick Fisher’s proposal for a Berlin housing complex, in which the old is shown in red and the new in white. The proposal resembles a palimpsest, which is a parchment on which partially erased previous layers are still visible.


Merging Media: It is not until clients enter Marco Cardamone’s office that they learn the patterns they have been viewing on his walls form his company’s logo. Just as the client’s search for clarity becomes resolved through Marco’s excellent solutions, so too does the image unification process becomes complete as you enter his professional world. This is called an anamorphic projection.


513 Court Place: In this project designed for a certain popular downtown lawyer, or goal was to connect the outdoors to within by screening the existing facade with perforated metal. The effect will be to communicate Mr.Pribanic’s willingness to speak with all, and his desire to connect to the city in which he practices.


Radiant Chair: You may remember this radiant heated chair project, which I presented at PKN last year. Here the human subject becomes our existing condition. Using the work of Yves Klein as a precedent, we used the outline of my intern’s body to determine the most efficient way to lay out the heating elements.


River House: In this Allegheny river-adjacent, Morningside house, we exactly preserve the base of this former distillery. Our new addition, which sprouts from the existing like a vase of flowers, responds directly to the characteristics of the site. And the new forms and materials are industrial, reinforcing the building’s original function.


Prairie House: In this earth-sheltered project for a North Dakota couple, the prairie is our existing condition. As you can see, we reinterpret and re-present the land in various ways that reinforce the building’s sense of place. What do all these examples have in common? All have more layers of meaning than immediately meet the eye. Neither the original condition of the design nor the new architecture dominates. They are betwixt and between.


The original presentation of this content April 9, 2015 at the Carnegie Museum of Artfor Pecha Kucha Night was similarly complex. The museum galleries are stages where viewers observe art objects brought together from different times and places. That experience alone is multivalent. Yet making things even more interesting, we presented in the cafe, a place where people normally talk about the art AFTER experiencing it.

And what is the resulting experience? Maybe, just maybe, in these liminal places, the quality of ambiguity that is generated has the possibility to create a fluid situation that frees the viewer from the inflexibility of contemporary life. Perhaps in these architectural designs, as at Pecha Kucha Night, it may be possible to experience the world afresh and possibly form new connections with others.

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