Building's design supports bringing people with disabilities into the community
UCP/CLASS CEO Al Condeluci, right, with architect Paul Rosenblatt of Springboard, who designed the agency's newly renovated building in Swissvale.
The interior of the newly renovated UCP/CLASS building in Swissvale features blackboard dialogues about community, self-determination, interdependence and other themes.
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Among the local disability rights community, Al Condeluci is eminent not only for his prodigious work ensuring community inclusion for people with disabilities, but also for articulating that vision far and wide in articles, books and speeches.
Mr. Condeluci, 63, the longtime head of United Cerebral Palsy/Community Living and Support Services (or UCP/CLASS), grew up understanding the barriers faced by people with disabilities through his cousin Carol, who was born with Down syndrome. In the 1970s, as a social worker, his understanding deepened when he met interesting young people the same age as himself who were shut off from life because of the severity of their disabilities.
Written off and essentially warehoused, they lacked access to the opportunities available to their non-disabled peers. They had none of what Mr. Condeluci came to understand as "social capital."
Thus began Mr. Condeluci's involvement with the disability rights movement and UCP Pittsburgh, the mission of which is "working toward a community where each belongs."
Community-building is also a concern of architect Paul Rosenblatt, founder of Springboard, the South Side design firm involved with the recent renovation of the Swissvale building that now houses a portion of UCP/CLASS's staff. Ten years ago, Mr. Rosenblatt, 52, was inspired to found a firm that would function as a springboard for people's visions and to nurture community through architecture and other types of design.
Springboard's work on the UCP/CLASS building reflects the common interest. The building's walls and columns literally speak the principles of community upon which UCP/CLASS operates. White vinyl lettering captures the organization's philosophy as if written on a blackboard by an energetic professor.
Mr. Rosenblatt said the idea of showcasing the agency's guiding principles in this way emerged from meetings with Mr. Condeluci and his staff, who had noticed that Springboard associate Shannon Ashmore had "wonderfully friendly handwriting."
"We suggested it might be fun to use that handwriting in the space itself and began to focus on three columns that march through the space. We imagined them like big blackboards."
Another inspiration was the concept of "architecture parlante" (literally, "speaking architecture"), in which buildings explain their own purpose or identity. The concept, originally associated with 19th-century French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux, underlies the practice of embedding words or names in building designs. The facades of Carnegie Institute in Oakland and the Boston Public Library are examples.
"The words embody the idea that buildings are living breathing organisms," explained Mr. Rosenblatt. "If the building speaks, you may also be inspired to think about building community on other levels."
"The fundamental idea that Al has developed is creating a bridge between people with disabilities and society," Mr. Rosenblatt added. "Enlarging the idea of community, connecting people. This concept permeates the design."
UCP/CLASS's 30,000 square-foot Braddock Avenue building, the former site of the Center for Creative Play, opened last fall. It accommodates staff offices that have long overflowed the agency's primary location on Centre Avenue in Oakland. Although the building is used primarily for offices, it has a 110-seat center for education sessions and special events.
The 60-year-old agency is one of the largest disability organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania. With an annual budget of $31 million and about 350 staff members, the agency provides direct and indirect services to 4,000 clients in 14 programs.
"The renovation has been exciting," said Mr. Condeluci. "Paul and his colleagues are artists, yet they are pragmatic in their thinking."
Mr. Rosenblatt said his firm has a strong commitment to universal design and accessibility, not as a separate service but because it is a human issue. "Access is part of every project we do."
Aside from the lettering, other notable features of the renovation are its silver LEED certification and a welcoming facade and entry.
Originally built as a grocery store, the building had a large plain brick facade and functional entryway that required a thoughtful transformation.
"It's a beautiful place to work," said Courtney Walker, director of development for UCP/CLASS.
Phase one of the $4 million building project is complete, said Ms. Walker. Upcoming phases will cover landscaping and development of the lower level of the building.
FISA Foundation recently added a grant to the project. Other funders include Hillman Foundation, Buhl Foundation, PNC Foundation and Charitable Trusts, Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, and DSF Charitable Trust.
"It's an amazing feeling every time I walk into the building," said Mr. Condeluci. "Not only am I overwhelmed by the energy and connectedness of our staff to the people we serve, but as I look at the blackboard dialogues about community, self-determination, interdependence and other themes, I am reminded of the deep spirit behind our work."
Added Mr. Rosenblatt: "Ever since I started working with Al and his team, I have been inspired to think about what really matters in design. What makes a community a warm and welcoming space and how can design contribute to that? Al and his team have been inspiring collaborators in shaping the UCP/CLASS environment."
First Published January 23, 2012 12:00 am