David Lewis: An Urban Legend

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David Lewis -- fabled urban design pioneer, architect, professor, painter, sculptor, art critic, writer and, perhaps most important, friend to the city of Pittsburgh -- turns 90 today.

Before reaching for the inevitable Grand Old Man or Lion in Winter comparisons, consider this: Mr. Lewis, a founder of Urban Design Associates -- one of the first community-based city planning firms anywhere -- spends much time these days in a Millvale workshop overseeing people wearing masks, wielding torches, cutting steel into sculpture.

An unexpected occupation for someone entering his 10th decade, perhaps, but Mr. Lewis, emeritus professor at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, has led a big, crowded, creative life, and it's not going to stop for a birthday.

He sat happily, however, for a few hours on Saturday at the Mendelson Gallery in Shadyside, greeting throngs of friends and admirers who came for his show, "Drawings in Steel." They are actually delicate, powerful, primal sculptures inspired by his colorful paintings of lizards and sparrows, trees, flora and fauna done on brown paper bags.

"If there is a renaissance man left in the world, it is David," says Don Carter, former president of UDA. "We always used to say that his voice is as silver as his pen. He is remarkable."


Such encomiums embarrass Mr. Lewis, and always have.

"Nothing I have done in my lifetime as an architect and urban designer has been achieved alone," he told the Congress for the New Urbanism, which honored him in 2007.

"The essence of urban design is teamwork," he said, not just the professionals, but "the citizens, to whom all cities rightfully belong.

"We didn't consider ourselves pioneers. We did only what was obvious to us."

Asked to reflect today on his accomplishments, Mr. Lewis can be infuriatingly modest, his eyes glinting balefully under bushy white eyebrows, snatching a pen out of the reporter's hand when it appears that the conversation is veering too closely toward him.

"Don't write that!" he barks, adding that he prefers that any article be about the team of "wonderful people I worked with in this wonderful city of ours."

In the next minute, he grins with pleasure at the mention of Thaddeus Mosley, whom he describes as Pittsburgh's most gifted sculptor. (For the record, Terry Shutko is "the city's best painter and [architect] Ray Gindroz its best draftsman," Mr. Lewis adds.)

Mr. Mosley says he first met Mr. Lewis decades ago through a shared interest in African tribal art.

"What I liked about David, besides his wit, his intelligence, his vast knowledge and experience, was his generosity -- his interest in other artists and his attempts to find venues for people who he thought were underexposed," says Mr. Mosley, adding that "he's the only person I ever knew who knew Brancusi, Mondrian, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth. Man, that's something."

Gallery owner and friend Steve Mendelson says Mr. Lewis' iron sculptures are gestural and spontaneous, but "very complex. They don't crowd each other. They're metaphors for his life, about working together in harmony, while each has his or her own space."

"He could have ended his life as Sir David, living in London," notes Mr. Mendelson, who bought his gallery on Ellsworth Avenue in a 1980s auction with Mr. Lewis' encouragement. "But he's here. He doesn't just walk the walk, he talks the talk."

Mendelson Gallery will show Mr. Lewis' works through Feb. 28. Mr. Lewis will be at the gallery this Thursday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. to sign copies of his new book, "Six Stories."

Like his art, the stories in this slim volume are fanciful, folkloric, slightly erotic, reflecting a playful, polymathic sensibility that draws from all parts of Mr. Lewis' life, from an idyllic childhood in South Africa -- his grandfather was mayor of Capetown -- to the art studios of post-war Britain and Europe, and, finally, to his life as UDA head, plotting the rebirth of America's Rust Belt cities.

Out of South Africa

After serving in the South African Navy during World War II, Mr. Lewis was ordered to leave the country for protesting his university's segregation policies. His grandfather appealed to Jan Smutz, then the country's prime minister, to no avail. "Word came back to my grandfather, and it was this: 'If you take political action, there are consequences,' " he recalls.

In Britain, he made his way to Cornwall, working on a farm ("digging potatoes!") and becoming part of the St. Ives artist's colony on the Cornwall coast ("wind, rain, rocks, birds -- they were beginning to paint and sculpt in the rhythm of that landscape"). There, he met some of the greatest figures in post-war modernist British art: Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Sir Terry Frost and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who became the first of Mr. Lewis' four wives.

Trained as an architect at the University of Leeds, he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1962 as a visiting scholar. With the civil rights movement in full throttle, Mr. Lewis "was determined to work in a field that would remove obstacles preventing people from realizing their life's dreams," says Mr. Gindroz, co-founder of UDA with Mr. Lewis.

Intensely collegial and collaborative, Mr. Lewis was appointed Andrew Mellon Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at CMU in 1963. He created the first master's program of its kind and, shortly after, with Ford Foundation money, founded UDA. Except for a (relatively) brief time at Yale University between 1968 and 1974, Mr. Lewis has remained here, the recipient of every major award in the field of architecture.

He has authored dozens of books over a lifetime -- classic urban design texts and richly illustrated tomes about great 20th-century artists, including Mondrian, and was the first to write a book about his friend, Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

For all this, Mr. Lewis says he's proudest of UDA, the team of architects and planners he assembled here in the 1960s, founded on a then-revolutionary principle: To revitalize cities, communities should participate in the planning and design of their own neighborhoods.

Today, UDA's fingerprints are all over Pittsburgh: Crawford Square, Station Square, East Liberty's new mixed-income housing, the preserved smokestacks at The Waterfront, Village of Shadyside, Manchester, the Bellefield Tower in Oakland -- even the historic William Penn Hotel, which was almost torn down to make way for the U.S. Steel building before Mr. Lewis and Mr. Gindroz quietly intervened.

Not for him the "egotistical art-buildings" of superstar architects or the top-down urban "planning" of Robert Moses in New York or even that of well-meaning local urban redevelopers, flush with federal money, who reconfigured and nearly destroyed East Liberty's business district.

"We developed some basic rules," Mr. Carter says. "Never go into a community meeting with answers. Ask questions. And the first ones should be very basic: What do you like best about where you live? What do you like least? What are your dreams for this place? And from that, from dozens, hundreds or sometimes thousands of interviews, you can get a portrait of the community's strengths, weaknesses and aspirations and build from that."

Commonly referred to as "the man who brought Prince Charles to Pittsburgh" (albeit in a blinding blizzard), Mr. Lewis persuaded the Prince of Wales, who championed the preservation of older, working-class communities and a return to craftsmanship, to be the keynote speaker in 1988 for a remarkable "Remaking Cities" conference at the Benedum Center. It attracted 350 urban planners, architects, economists and public officials from all over the world to address the challenges of post-industrial cities not just in the U.S. but in Germany's Ruhr Valley and the Midlands in England.

"It was a triumph and a wake-up call, a one-off conference, never to occur again. But many things followed, including much more sensibility worldwide to the social, physical, environmental, economic and quality-of-life issues facing post-industrial cities," says Mr. Carter, who runs a research institute at CMU named after the event, the Remaking Cities Institute. It was conceived by Mr. Lewis, Mr. Carter and Richard Florida, a former CMU professor and author of the best-selling book "The Rise of the Creative Class."

Shortly after the prince's visit in 1988, Mr. Lewis moved to West Homestead. He and his wife, Judy Tener-Lewis, have spent years trying to revitalize Homestead's decaying business district, purchasing buildings and fighting developers intent on tearing down historic buildings, encouraging their re-use instead. Chiodo's Tavern was one battle they lost, but its bar survives today at The Tin Front Cafe, whose facade is festooned with Mr. Lewis' sculptures.

Next door, Ms. Tener-Lewis runs Annex Cookery, the Homestead version of a much-loved cookstore she owned and operated until 1998 in Shadyside. Other buildings have his sculptures in storefront windows, and more and more are finding their way into people's gardens and homes.

Mr. Lewis' work "is all about the richness of his life and experience, about the stories his grandmother told him when he was a kid," says Mr. Mosley. "Those experiences aren't just in his work but are evident in how he treats people, with such great humanity.

"It's difficult to find someone who has done so much personal introspection and exploration and has been able to delineate it, show it, in his art and architecture."

These days, Mr. Mosley, who is 85, says he understands why Mr. Lewis continues to create.

"You don't stop when you're our age," he laughs. "We're like an old car, and if you do stop, it's hard to start it up again, so you just keep going."

Indeed, on a recent morning, seated at a table at the Tin Front Cafe, clad in his favorite huge fisherman's sweater and hunched over a cup of steaming Oolong tea, Mr. Lewis speaks effusively of plans for new ventures with other store owners on Eighth Avenue, even as old friends steadily stream into the cafe to say hello.

Asked why he keeps on working, he fixes a visitor with a stare.

"The material speaks to you, and you respond. At the moment of our birth, when we issue from our mother's womb, we're held upside down. There's a sharp spank in the back, and at that moment we yell," he says. "It's our first response from inside of us, responding to the external world for the first time, and all the way through our life we go on responding.

"And we only stop responding when we die, and people will look at us and say, 'The old bugger is dead at last,' " he says, chuckling.

Ever the raconteur, Mr. Lewis recounts the time when a very proper older woman was eyeing one his paintings -- a vividly colored scene of two animals in close congress -- unsure if it depicted something slightly naughty.

" 'Is that what I think it is?' she asked, pointing to one part of the picture's anatomy. I told her, 'Yes, it is.'

" 'Well, in that case,' the woman told me, 'I'll buy it!' "

He then erupts into what can best be described as a wild cackle, loud and giddy, and, like the enthusiasm, passion and creativity he has poured into his life's work here in Pittsburgh -- utterly contagious.

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published January 24, 2012 5:00 AM


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