Tag Archives: urbanism

A Trip Through ‘Bat’Burgh

So, I had to take a quick drive today to pick something up in Mount Washington. It was 3:00, and I was in Homewood. I started thinking, “OK, I have to go through one tunnel, through a detour downtown, over a bridge, and up a hill nearing 4:00.’ I was not anticipating this being a pleasant trip. However, to my amazement, the trip was not only smooth but very memorable…especially the return route. I swiftly made it up to my destination in about 20 minutes. As I started back, I decided to take a different route that I knew wouldn’t be as bad as the Parkway East Outbound 4:00 daily nightmare.

First, while on Mount Washington, I was reminded of how unique this neighbrhood was – very blue collar, but 30 seconds away from arguably the best view of a city in the U.S.. So unique. Then I passed Chatham Village, pocketed right in the middle of Mount Washington. I was taken back to Architectural History at Kent, when I researched and wrote on this neighborhood as one of the best planned residential areas anywhere. Its preservation is stunning. I came down the hill and within 5 minutes I was in Oakland. Well documented, obviously, but noticeably urban – I pass it every day, but always feel like more of Pittsburgh should feel like Oakland. Then, I pass Batman. Yes, Batman. How cool is it that we have become a destination for Hollywood to come shoot big time films? Zoomed through Shadyside, the affluent, old money beauty that resides in city limits. The best residential area of Pittsburgh. Before I knew it, I was in Squirrel Hill by the Jewish Comunity Center – such a timeless community with deep heritage.

I made the entire round trip in under an hour. Not that this surprised me, really, nor had I not seen all of this stuff hundreds of times [besides Batman] but my return trip reminded me this about Pittsburgh: it is so very cool. Where else could you possibly live that in that short amount of time, you can see so many unique, authentic, beautiful, and vibrant neighborhoods? And along the way, you see Batman?!

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Pittsburgh – Most Livable U.S. City…Again

This article from Reuters says The Economist lists Pittsburgh as America’s most livable city.

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/21/us-cities-liveable-idUSTRE71K0NS20110221?pageNumber=1

That’s a tag that we’ve seen a few times here over the past few years, and is certainly a very impressive designation. My wonderful friends in Vancouver quickly pointed out that their city comes in at #1 most livable in the world, with Pittsburgh down at #29. Having been to Vancouver to see them, I can totally understand why. We can certainly be happy about our #1 designation in the U.S., but hearing this again raised some questions for me more than anything:

1. How are we #1 in the U.S.? I love this city as much as anyone, but this city has its deficiencies. We obviously have a great healthcare system, world-class higher education, low cost of living/housing, great arts and culture scene. However, our public transit stinks, there is no downtown residential market, no favorable climate for businesses to move downtown, and a political structure unwilling to allow those with a vision in office to pursue that vision. We all know that our mayor doesn’t have one. It appears as though density equals crime and congestion, which hurts the major worldwide metropolises.

2. How is the top U.S. city only #29 in the world? That to me is fairly embarrassing on a larger scale. I will admit that I have yet to visit a city in the U.S. that has the amenities that a Vancouver does, so I won’t argue their #1 position. That’s a great city. But how far have we gone downhill that the U.S. has the 29th most livable city in the world? That’s just truly baffling to me.

3. If Pittsburgh is #1 in the U.S., how do we improve it to push it up the list worldwide? As a passionate Pittsburgher with no intentions of leaving soon, I want to be able to affect change in this city. That is one marvelous thing about this town – it is very small. If you want to affect change, you most certainly can. I don’t bring up the deficiencies of Pittsburgh to merely criticize it – I don’t think we can gloat that we get a designation like this and be happy. There are many, many things that can be improved upon to make this city an even better place. If anyone gets complacent about that, we are in trouble.

4. Refer to question #1. Just how bad are other U.S. cities transportation systems, costs of living, etc that Pittsburgh tops them all? Moreover, what happens if Pittsburgh gets hot and the housing market spikes up to the levels of other major areas? Suddenly, we aren’t so ‘livable’.

Lists like these are always great for the morale, and always a reminder to me how lucky we are live here. However, I’m going to keep doing what I can to move our city up that list – ’cause in this big town/small city we live in, its possible for a guy like me a or a person like you to affect this whole city. Now THAT is advantage Pittsburgh.

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Reasons I Love Italy…But Home More

So after our lovely wedding we got to take a trip to what my wife and I both consider a home away from home – Italy. During our undergraduate studies in architecture, Annie spent a semester in Rome and I spent a semester in Florence. We thought it would be fun to show each other how we lived in our respective cities.

It didn’t take long after we stepped off the Eurostar from Rome to Florence for me to remember that distinct Florentine smell of street sweeper and grungy appearance of the train station piazza primarily from an abundance of pigeons. I loved it. I got in trouble with the wife for leading us a bit too far east away from the hotel, but I just had to get my eyes on the Duomo again. It is just the most remarkable church tucked tightly in a piazza, with a fascinating mixture of tourists, locals, and students all hours of the day.

Once that excitement wore off and we kept lugging our bags to the hotel, it sank in how tight the roads and sidewalks were. They are both frustrating and intriguing. Navigating between fast paced locals, projecting cast iron window security grilles, and Vespas is an art form.

Maybe I’m a bit odd, but the immersion of oneself in a foreign culture is more beautiful to me than an exotic beach. The constant sensory overload might be what intrigues me so much.

Along the 11 day trip in both cities, I came up with a mental list of other reasons I love Italy:

-It is unbelievably, unfathomably old.

-Once you find your way through the veil of Tourist Italy, the food is unmatched. Had meals that were a disgrace to food in general, but also had the finest piece of beef I’ve ever eaten…with a juniper berry wine sauce.

-Inside city walls, it looks like new building construction has not happened since before our Declaration of Independence. So refreshing. Interiors, yes, but great to NOT see a bunch of enviro-minimal infill buildings all over the place. How a Ben and Jerry’s got next to the Duomo though, is truly a sin that someone shouldn’t have committed =). Almost as bad as the McDonald’s across from the Pantheon.

-It is inherently romantic. It doesn’t try to be, it just is.

-Despite the fact the culture appears to have no apparent future or indication that many people work all day, they are far ahead of us in terms of transportation and health. I think the reason why people perceive Europeans as so attractive starts with the fact they are all a normal size. They walk…everywhere. Your feet take a beating, but you feel great when you walk a few miles a day to get around. And if we in America had anything even in the same universe as their train system, the US economy would be entirely different. Baffles me every time.

I think I’ve had my fill of Italy for a bit now, but it sure was a magnificent place for a honeymoon. Despite all of the things I saw new and saw again, it renewed my appreciation for what we have back here at home. Sure, there are things I wish we had here in the US, but coming home we were so grateful to have the things and the freedoms we have here at home.

And given the date of this post- I’ll end it with a sincere thanks to our troops and veterans who protect this lovely place we call home.

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Weddings + Architecture

Professor Justin Hilton told me in my first year of architecture school that we were all in the program because something in us was a control freak. We could control virtually all of a person’s senses by the way we crafted space. We control the way people circulate, what they see, what they hear, what they feel, smell – about everything but taste, unless they feel like licking some hardwood floor.

I now pass this saying along to my students, as I feel it is critical to understand the effect a designer can have on an occupant of space even at a subconscious level. This brings me to my real topic: have we over controlled space?

I bring this up because I got married last Saturday. It was the most beautiful day a person could ever ask for outside, and it ended up being the best day of my life. The only hitch in the entire day happened during the ceremony, which I will get to in a few.

Think about all of the common interior spaces people hold a marriage ceremony- a beautiful cathedral, a neighborhood church, a Vegas chapel, a city courthouse. These spaces evoke different emotions and actions, and are very controlled. The environment is created by the architecture itself, and occupants react accordingly – subconsciously or consciously.

Exterior spaces however present an element of the unknown…nature. Sure, a beach setting for a wedding ceremony will bring the gentle crashing of waves, the distant sounds of boats cruising along the shoreline, and the rustle of palm trees in the breeze. At any moment though, those sounds change. An airplane might fly over the gazebo at the most inopportune moment. Its a part of the elements – and where true character is found.

Now, back to my wedding ceremony. We got married at a local mansion, where we used the exterior areas for the ceremony. An angry neighbor decided that it would be fun to throw a child’s birthday party facing over top of our exterior ceremony site, inflatable jump and all. Despite the fact the children were saying ‘Shhhh its a wedding!!’, the angry neighbors egged them on to scream even louder at the beginning of the ceremony. Now on top of being nervous and emotional from seeing my beautiful bride, I am now increasingly frustrated with the lack of respect these people are showing towards our big day. They suddenly quieted right as we said our vows [because the police showed up] so ultimately it worked out wonderfully.

Looking back on it now, I feel like I will remember my ceremony a bit more distinctly that this happened than if it was held in a controlled environment. We had character. Its a story to tell. It gives me a renewed sensitivity to how beautiful nature is, how beautiful the character of a city is. Whether it comes at an inopportune time or not, sometimes the character of the unknown is refreshing.

So I sit and think, do we control space too much? In an era where character is diminishing all around us, should we let more of our surroundings in and enjoy it, good or bad, while we still have it to enjoy? For me, I now get to enjoy life and all of its unknowns with my love – and there’s no sense in not enjoying everything life brings.

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Civic Arena – Should it Stay or Go?

The Civic Arena is just screaming to get a post on this blog. Great building, great icon of Pittsburgh, great sports team inside it.

The current argument is, ‘It may ultimately be the best decision to demolish it, but let’s not rush it. Let’s take the time to make sure there’s not a good solution to develop in and around it.”

Alright, I may not agree with demolishing it next Tuesday. I suppose I’d rather see it standing than see asphalt for the three-plus years it will take all development parties involved to start any sort of new building project. Given the forceful opposition to progress in this city though, lets make that five-plus years.

The historical photos seen below are emotional, wonderful, inspiring, and makes one wish for a moment that the igloo would be around forever with that wonderful view opened up to the city’s skyline.

Then all of a sudden, I see the reaction of people to the new arena. Now, I know that the reaction of Yinzers going to see Paul McCartney is different than a designer’s point of view, because the new arena is pretty uninspiring from the exterior. However its interesting to see how quickly the Civic Arena became the used up toy that doesn’t flash as bright or make as much noise as the new toy…

I’ll keep my thoughts brief on what I actually think should happen. I’ve thought of them in list form, so I’m writing them that way.

-The land that this building occupies is the most important development land that any of us may ever see in Pittsburgh in our lifetimes. It can become the only true live-work district in the city, and be the catalyst for real revitalization of the downtown residential markets.

-I will be absolutely, positively stunned if any architect or developer comes up with any redevelopment proposal of the Arena itself that not just looks good, but can generate real revenue. It just doesn’t happen in buildings like this one. Money trumps ideas.

-If politicians, neighborhood groups, or anyone not designing or holding the development money have too much say, it will be a colossal failure and will never reach its potential in terms of what this NEEDS to be for Pittsburgh. This area is bigger than the revitalization of the Hill District. Its the catalyst for the growth of Pittsburgh.

-Probable timeline for the beloved Igloo: Whine, whine, whine, get a demo delay, find no profitable use, whine, demolition, big whine, urban planning, political influence, two years pass, and in 5-7 years the creation of the best district the city has ever seen. A whole new neighborhood is formed and becomes the only area of this city that resembles a progressive, large city district that will attract people back downtown to live, work, and play.

That’s what I hope, at least.

Edit: After reading the comment posted, I’m hoping that I did not come across at elitist in this post. Given my love of Rural Studio’s work and many other small neighborhood initiatives, I clearly do view architecture a social art. I absolutely do feel like the Hill District residents should benefit and be influential in the redevelopment of this area. I wouldn’t even disagree if the Hill residents were ultimately the ones to make the final decision if the Arena was demolished or not.

Although there is a surplus of open office and residential space in downtown currently, my belief is that this is due to a lack of basic amenities provided by the area. That goes to my point as to how important this area is – it can provide a new level of density that can house amenities that residential markets long for, and could spark a shift in population back towards the downtown triangle area.

Back to the Hill residents – I don’t think they should be the ONLY ones deciding what will be redeveloped here. For one, its too important of an area for downtown, to link back in to the Hill and recreate that neighborhood. Secondly, I can’t take a stance that says that communities can tell developers where and how to spend their money. If I was investing my own money here, I would have an understanding that I need to prioritize the community heavily, and make sure that the Hill residents benefit heavily from it. But I would in no way invest in the area if the community had ALL of the say. It doesn’t make financial sense.

I do agree whole heartedly with the end of the comment though: our mayor should be NOWHERE near this one.

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Pretty Awesome House For Sale…

I know of this awesome house in Lawrenceville that just went on the market. It’s old, yet its new; its cozy, but its fun. It’s craftsman meets artist loft meets treehouse. It’s about everything that a person would want in value, urban living, privacy, views, and convenience.

This isn’t a personal post at all 😉

But seriously, it’s an awesome house and sad to see it go – but maybe you or someone you know could be the next owner! Contact me and I can get you in touch with my people…

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Buses That Can Drive OVER Cars

Now THIS is some real thinking right here…while we here in the US rely on urban death-spiral methods of public transportation and as a remedy just ‘improve’ and widen highways, the Chinese come up with THIS:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/huffpost/669166

Seriously? I have a hard time believing the extremely low cost of the project, but the idea? Wow. How fun would it be to drive UNDER a bus?? The kicker?

It’s not just an idea – construction is starting THIS YEAR. Oh how I love our Port Authority here in Pittsburgh. I won’t get in to all of the problems they have, I’ll just go dream about what this city could look like if we had a full blown light rail system instead of all [well, decreasing number of] buses…or have a few bright Chinese guys come bring us a few of these crazy suckers.

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