Gigapan photos create a broad, new vision of Pittsburgh

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Glass-walled skyscrapers that hold vertical hydroponic farms built to feed urban populations may sound futuristic, but Dickson Despommier thinks we may be seeing real ones within a year.

The idea, which came out of a project the Columbia University professor initiated with his students, was discussed recently on the public radio program "Living on Earth" ( Professor Despommier said Qatar, China and India are countries very interested in developing such methods of food production, and may move to do so soon.

Loopy or visionary? Time will tell.

But without vision and imagination, cultures become stagnant.

Pittsburgh has its own visionary in David Bear, a fellow at the Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. The studio is an idea incubator, where artists, philosophers, scientists, computer engineers and others mingle as comfortably as poker players at a hunting cabin.

Mr. Bear is best known as the initiator of the High Point Park project, his investigation of new uses for the rooftop of the U.S. Steel Tower, Downtown, begun after he learned that it is the largest, highest space on top of any building on Earth. The one-acre site was conceived as a heliport but hasn't been used for that purpose in 18 years.

He proposes an environmentally innovative, publicly accessible urban park with unequalled views that could become a tourism destination and a symbol of Pittsburgh much as St. Louis' Gateway Arch is. Its features could contribute to the international dialogue over issues as varied as expanding populations, environmental stewardship and livable cities.

"New Perspectives of Pittsburgh: Interactive Urban Panoramas" is an extension of Mr. Bear's vision. This exhibition of large-scale prints of 20 Gigapan images at the Photo Forum space in the upper lobby of the U.S. Steel Tower is the first exhibition of printed Gigapans devoted to a single topic and the first centered around a theme.

It also has an interactive component: On-site computer kiosks allow visitors to navigate the digital images much like a Mapquest map. One visitor was able to pinpoint his Lawrenceville family home, for example, by closing down the visual miles between it and Downtown.

"It really does change perspectives," Mr. Bear said, and thus the exhibition title. The technology provides "the ability for catching a city in repose in a way that hasn't happened before."

Central is a 42-inch by 20-foot print of the first "Pittsburgh Gigapanorama," conceived by Mr. Bear and taken from the building roof on Oct. 19, 2009. Images from each side of the roof were stitched together to make it.

"No one had seen this view before this was made," Mr. Bear said of the 360-degree city panorama, aligned into a horizontal plane, that begins and ends with the new Consol Energy Center, at the image's far right in juxtaposition with the Civic Arena it has replaced.

While photographs capture the moment, the Civic Arena is a reminder that that moment is continually in flux. Two of the show's images are surprising because they are of Pittsburgh past, unexpected as the product of cutting-edge technology. "Oakland 1897" and "Downtown about 1929" were made from historic photographs in the collection of the Archives Service Center, the University Library, University of Pittsburgh.

Others show familiar Pittsburgh scenes -- "The Point From Mount Washington," "CMU and Oakland from the Cathedral of Learning," "Fireworks Over the Point" -- but with heretofore unregistered breadth, intensity and opportunity for exploration.

Steve Renich's surreal "Heinz Chapel & the Cathedral of Learning," in which the tops of local architectural landmarks broach an empty sky from opposite sides of the frame, is a look through the doorway of alternate aesthetic possibilities.

The exhibition is particularly appropriate in this, the 40th anniversary of the innovative building that debuted the use of Cor-ten steel in its external girdering system. Included on the walls are images and text reproduced from the booklet that accompanied the August 1970 opening of the Harrison, Abramovitz & Abbe-designed U.S. Steel corporate headquarters, billed as "a building of the 21st century" with such amenities as "moving stairways."

The October 2009 shoot was a rehearsal for the more publicized Gigapan taken Sept. 23 that will be exhibited at U. S. Steel Tower in early 2011. "No other city in the U.S. is doing this kind of project," Mr. Bear said.

As a longtime travel writer and former travel editor of the Post-Gazette, he has cosmopolitan knowledge of what makes a place special. Mr. Bear also wants to spread the word of what a great city Pittsburgh is. From a vantage point 841 feet above the street, his reach for the stars will travel a little closer.

The exhibition continues through Sunday at 600 Grant St. and is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. today through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free but bring photo identification to show at the security desk upon entry. To explore further, visit

More Gigapans

Eight additional Gigapans may be seen at Carnegie Museum of Natural History through Dec. 31. They're the winners of a juried exhibition that was part of last weekend's first Fine International Conference on Gigapixel Imaging held at Carnegie Mellon University.

The aim of the conference was to encourage exploration of the Gigapan for application in the classroom, field and laboratory. The competition drew international submissions from staff of educational institutions and nonprofit organizations, and includes Saudi Arabian petroglyphs, a school of Salema fish aggregated into a ball to escape predators, and a tiny barnacle on a crab shell taken through a scanning electron microscope.

Among the larger works, a 23- by 31/2-foot image of the Janos Biosphere Reserve in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, shows a vast expanse of agave plants, rock and sky. A 17-by 31/2-foot landscape of Cape Crozier, in the Antarctic, features an Adelie penguin colony.

You can view and zoom in on the images on (click here for direct link)

The museum is open 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, until 8 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $15; seniors, $12; students and children 3-11 years old, $11; under 3, free. Information: 412-622-3131 or

Culture Club

Paul Zelevansky, artist, and husband of museum director Lynn, will lead a salon-style conversation about decoding art -- "Pictures Need Your Attention!" -- at 6 p.m. Thursday in the galleries of Carnegie Museum of Art. Happy hour begins at 5:30 p.m. Admission, $10, includes two drink tickets. (412-622-3131 or

Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: or 412-263-1925.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?