High Point Pittsburgh: CMU fellow aims high for view from U.S. Steel Tower

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Over the next four months, a three-story, 65,000-square-foot public space will be constructed on the roof of the U.S. Steel Tower, Downtown.

But don't strain your neck trying to get a look at the top of Pittsburgh's tallest building -- the construction will be completely virtual.

For more than a decade, David Bear, a fellow at Carnegie Mellon's Studio for Creative Inquiry, has been thinking about how Pittsburgh can create a public viewing spot at or near the top of the skyscraper. A virtual version is an initial step.

"It's kind of a high-concept approach, but we think that by more completely evolving the idea and envisioning it and creating awareness of it, we'll hopefully convince the world that this really needs to happen," he said.

Mr. Bear, former travel editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, first suggested the idea of a "glass-covered observatory in the heavens" in an August 2001 newspaper column. A month later the Sept. 11 attacks happened, and the idea foundered.

But sometime around 2007, Mr. Bear looked at a satellite image of Downtown and decided to pursue his idea of a public space on the roof of the tower.

"Every great city has a great view," he said.

In his mind, the tower has the potential of Seattle's Space Needle and New York's Empire State Building. Although the popular depiction of Pittsburgh is from the vantage point of Mount Washington, Mr. Bear thinks Pittsburgh's great view can be found within Downtown.

He calls it the High Point Pittsburgh Investigation. Through his fellowship at Carnegie Mellon, Mr. Bear has guided architecture, engineering and business students as they moved the project from the theoretical to the possible. [See his January 2010 Post-Gazette piece, "An Acre of Possibilities, 841 Feet in the Sky."]

Now, Mr. Bear plans to move his High Point Pittsburgh project into the virtual.

Building the actual observation tower is still a lofty idea lacking financial backers and the support of the U.S. Steel Tower's owners, but the initial version of the website should be up and running by early May.

Sean McChesney is one of four graduate students at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center who will create a "virtual destination" of the space, with its proposed two interior levels and a rooftop promenade.

Once the website is completed, visitors will be able to virtually explore the rooftop area. A visitor can enter the lobby, ride external elevators to the roof, visit the space's art gallery, music venue and restaurant and look through the windows at the view.

Unlike blueprints, the site will be active, not static. A visitor to the virtual site on a Monday night could take in a concert. On a Tuesday night, the visitor could watch a fireworks show through the glass windows of the building.

"It will be as close to a lifelike experience as possible," Mr. McChesney said.

In May, the virtual version of High Point Pittsburgh will be visible at www.highpointpittsburgh.org. Construction of an actual three-story visitor's center remains an aspiration.

"It's much easier to build something in virtual reality than in reality," Mr. Bear said.

Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. First Published February 20, 2012 5:00 AM


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