The recent articles about the August Wilson Center for African American Culture are both fascinating and disturbing. I am fully aware that analyzing two totally different approaches for saving the center (a $9.5 million hotel development vs. an offer by three Pittsburgh foundations) is a difficult task requiring adequate information and time.
The fascination I have with the developer’s proposal has to do with the enormous challenge of conceptualizing a structure that can actually be built above the center without destroying or compromising the “iconic” form of the existing building. As a practicing architect, I have been involved with major renovations and “giving new life to existing structures” for over a half century. The New York City developer’s proposal reminds me of a giant four-dimensional puzzle or Rubic’s cube. Perhaps the puzzle can be solved — but I do have serious doubts based on what little information has been made public (conceptual plans and renderings would be helpful). We have been “teased” with the developer’s proposal, but surely there must be more to enable the judge to make a decision.
Questions that obviously will be resolved with subsequent studies and detailed design are many, including the structural proposal and how the “personality” of the center will be maintained with an additional competing major entrance. There also has been no mention of consulting the African-American architect, Allison G. Williams, who designed the center. Surely she would be knowledgeable in determining the viability of the proposal.
Regardless, the disturbing part of this issue is the potential “diminishing” effect the developer’s proposal would have on the center. How the center got its start, how it was conceived and designed or what problems were not solved during its operation do not matter now. What is important is to recognize how critical this center is to the African-American community, the city of Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania art community. The three foundations that submitted a proposal have an incredible track record and a vested interest that cannot be overlooked; the support offered by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust gives this offer additional credibility.
Hopefully the sale of the property will not be executed until all questions are answered and the viability of the proposal is guaranteed.
The writer is former national president of The American Institute of Architects.