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Imagining the Modern

Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center, Pittsburgh. Through May 2, 2016

Charette: Tri-State Journal of Architecture & Building, May 1952; Alcoa Building, Harrison & Abramovitz, architect. Images courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives.

Pittsburgh’s postwar era of Modern architecture and urban renewal lends itself to easy generalization. Shiny, diffident corporate boxes punctuate neighborhood-killing mega-projects in a relentless concrete landscape, precious few of whose irreversible changes materialized as actual improvements. Yet, Imagining the Modern, over,under’s ambitious exhibition of architecture in that place and period, aims for a more multivalent presentation.

The innocence, or naiveté, of the immediate postwar era is present here, sprouting in little-known publications such as Mitchell & Ritchey’s Pittsburgh in Progress of 1947. Commissioned by retail magnate and Fallingwater patron Edgar Kaufmann, the pamphlet foresees a more vast clean-slate redevelopment of Pittsburgh than ever actually came to pass. Intended as an enticement, it seems cautionary now.

The Public Auditorium Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County; Make It Pittsburgh! (brochure), c. 1961; Civic Arena; Mitchell & Ritchey, architect; Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives

It is also emblematic of the rich selection of period materials — newspapers, professional journals, and pamphlets — some under glass, some reproduced, and others open for perusing. These portray urban renewal as a much more episodic, contentious, and changeable entity than its current inevitability would indicate. Underscoring that sense, the curators meticulously document, in palimpsest- like site plans, the unrealized projects that were planned on the sites where constructions came to pass. These documents will delight specialists but perhaps befuddle novices.

The photography section is, by contrast, more legible. Here, Ezra Stoller’s exquisite remove contrasts with Teenie Harris’ dynamic engagement, as pangs of social justice emerge afresh.

Amid the Heinz’s Postmodern galleries, the curators use one large space as a real studio — Carnegie Mellon architecture students are at work on redesigns of the fortress-like Allegheny Center Mall of 1966 for course credit. They ambitiously repurpose an active gallery space, and the end results, even with preliminary sketches and models hanging up, are unknown. But the approach reflects an open and responsive attitude toward architectural process and the accompanying exhibit that Modern architecture itself had in small though insufficient amounts.


Image gallery: Pittsburgh Modern

Robert Schwartz; Panther Hollow Project, c. 1964; architectural rendering (35mm slide); Architect: Harrison & Abramovitz; Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives​.

Brochure illustration from Allegheny Center: From a Rich Heritage, a New Way of Life c. 1962; Allegheny Center, Deeter & Ritchey, architect. Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh; Helmut Jacoby, renderer.

Brady Stewart Studio; The Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, Easter Sunrise Service, 1963; Courtesy of Brady Stewart Studio​.

William V. Winans Jr.; Group of Men at Base of Civic Arena, 1960-61; Courtesy of Heinz History Center.

Brady Stewart Studio; Aerial View of Pittsburgh’s Skyline, 1954; Courtesy of Brady Stewart Studio​.

Newman-Schmidt Studios; Workmen installing the first aluminum panel, 1951; gelatin silver print; Director’s Discretionary Fund.

Harold Corsini; Gateway Center Under Construction, c. 1947-1952; Courtesy of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh​.

Edward R. Massery; Civic Arena from Wylie Avenue, 9.27.2011; inkjet print; Purchase: Second Century Acquisition Fund; © Ed Massery​.