Point of View: Baseball fans also get a ticket to Pittsburgh's skyline

Pittsburgh stands up and looks you in the face, said the late Clyde Hare, a photographer who spent decades capturing the city in memorable images.

For spectators inside PNC Park for the Pittsburgh Pirates home opener Thursday, Downtown's skyscrapers serve as a glittering backdrop. But, in breaks between innings, after the pierogi races or during pitchers mound conferences, the eyes wander.

This relatively new panorama is far more architectural than the classic, topographical view sightseers enjoy from atop Mount Washington. It's worth a closer look because turning the vision for a building into reality demands all the ambition, imagination, persistence and sweat that make a major league player great. For architects, that competition plays out in design contests, renderings and, finally, on city streets.

Forbes Field in Oakland was nestled at the edge of a Schenley Park ravine. It had brick walls but did not confine. PNC Park is like an outdoor room without walls that extends the terrestrial heart of Downtown because it connects so seamlessly via sightlines, its location and the Sixth Street Bridge, renamed for former Pirate Roberto Clemente.

"The city and the people and the thing happening at home plate are intimately connected," said Kai Gutschow, professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University.

Earl Santee, architect for PNC Park, said five sites were considered for the baseball field. One day, he was high up in a PNC bank tower talking with the Pirates and looking toward the North Side. He thought about how PNC Park would look along the river.

"Pretty much every building in Downtown Pittsburgh would have a view in the park. That was the moment I knew it was the right location," he said.

The city's layout played a role, too.

"A lot of these streets terminated in the ballpark across the river. You could see the ballpark through the streets. It creates a framework for development. It wasn't just about planning a ballpark. It was about everything else that had happened on the North Shore. We were trying to do the reverse of Three Rivers -- not plopping a building there," Mr. Santee said.

Beyond our newest field of dreams, the compact skyline, filled with aluminum, steel, glass and granite, includes the classic geometric shapes of art deco, Gothic's soaring arches and sleek Post Modern towers, some restrained and elegant, others too bombastic.

"A triangle is one of the most fundamental shapes in architecture," said Mr. Gutschow, adding that it was used in the pediments of Greek temples and symbolizes shelter.

Home plate itself forms a right triangle. But whether you sit behind the batter or elsewhere, variations of that shape abound in this view. At the left edge is the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which overlooks the Allegheny River and was the world's largest green building when it opened in 2003.

Jutting over the PNC Park Jumbotron is Federated Investors Tower. As the corporate headquarters of Federated Investors, its foundation was laid by John F. Donahue and Richard Fisher, who began by selling mutual funds door to door in the 1950s. Now the company manages $370 billion in assets.

Visible and to the right of a light standard is a sliver of white with a red "W." That's Washington Plaza, a luxury apartment complex and the only Pittsburgh building designed by I.M. Pei, who created the triangular addition to the Louvre in Paris and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

Washington Plaza tenants whose windows face north can watch the Civic Arena come down, see the Lower Hill, The Pennsylvanian, left field in PNC Park and gorgeous sunsets. Morning traffic reports amuse them because that's never their problem.

The terraced, triangular crown of the Gulf Tower is an architectural reference to an ancient Greek mausoleum at Halicarnassus that stands in modern Turkey. The Gulf Tower's lighting system is being updated with new technology, to enhance the building's appearance and use less energy, said Aaron Stauber, president of Rugby Realty. No word yet on whether a strobe light will flash when the Pirates hit home runs, as was true when the park opened in 2001.

Nearby looms Downtown's tallest building, the U.S. Steel Tower, whose exterior is Cor-Ten, a rust-resistant product the company patented. Now, it's topped by offices for UPMC, the city's largest employer.

The next heavyweight is also architecture as advertising -- a gray building built of aluminum that was the corporate headquarters for Alcoa. When Alcoa moved to the North Shore in 1998, the building became the Regional Enterprise Tower. Now with a new owner, it's being converted to offices and residences.

Architects for the BNY Mellon building worked hard to integrate it into Grant Street, giving it a tapered triangular cap and a rose granite plaza that affords a view of the Allegheny County Courthouse. The building also harmonizes beautifully with its neighbors, the Union Trust Building and the Omni William Penn Hotel.

Along Fort Duquesne Boulevard and just steps from the Sixth Street Bridge, the former Fulton Building is easily recognized because of its red-clay-tiled roof and the monumental Roman arch that bridges its light well. Henry Phipps hired New York architect Grosvenor Atterbury to design this building. After a $45 million restoration, it reopened in 2001 as the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel. A survivor from the Gilded Age, the building has a three-story white marble lobby and a rotunda illuminated by a translucent dome that is best seen from a colonnaded balcony.

Of the remaining buildings in this lineup, the newest is Three PNC Plaza, which has the Fairmont Pittsburgh hotel, PNC offices and headquarters of the law firm Reed Smith. If the city has witnessed a type of transformational home run, certainly one has been hit at the intersection of Liberty and Fifth avenues. Along with Three PNC Plaza, there's the gleaming blue and white Buhl Building, which looks like a jewel box.

The Gateway Center complex was an attempt in the early 1950s to revive Pittsburgh after industries that made it well-known nearly smothered the metropolis in smoke and grit.

When the original three buildings opened in 1952, tenants included corporate heavyweights -- Westinghouse Electric, Westinghouse Air Brake, Jones & Laughlin Steel, New York State Natural Gas, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, National Supply Co., Mellon Bank and Joseph Horne. Together, they occupied 42 percent of the available space.

"It was an imaginative, bold and brash development," Mr. Gutschow said, adding that the philosophy behind Gateway Center can be traced back to Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect and fierce proponent of modernizing cities by clearing out the old and creating towers in the park.

Nightfall paints the view in stark relief and you may recall a blue triangle of light that was installed atop the old Horne's building. "Sign of Light" was the work of Robert Wilson and Richard Gluckman. The technology behind the sign is being updated, and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust hopes it will be running again by the end of 2012.

"We are also exploring other lighting installations that may be visible from PNC Park as part of an overall plan to illuminate the Cultural District with public art," said Veronica Corpuz, Trust spokeswoman.

Long after the game ends and the park falls silent, impressions of the landscape linger.

The location for PNC Park, Mr. Santee said, "may be the best site we ever had for a baseball park. The No. 1 factor is a great site, if you want a great building."

As for the view, he said, "If you were a painter, it would be a great painting."

neigh_city - homes - artarchitecture

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published April 1, 2012 5:00 PM


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