October 21, 2013

This Week: Images of Pittsburgh – 1

In the offices of Urban Design Associates, there is an expansive canvas by the firm’s founder, urban-design pioneer David Lewis, mounted in the entrance lobby: a charcoal interpretation of Pittsburgh around the time Lewis himself came to the city from South Africa in the early 1960s:

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Pittsburgh was then a compact, muscular steel town, though much modified by the impact of the highway builders, with bulldozed voids of undelivered urban renewal –  still evident today from the offices of the firm in the old Gulf oil building:

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???????????????????????????????Pittsburgh feels like a late-19th-century to mid-20th-century eastern city.  Indeed, it could easily be a body double for Lower Manhattan in some other movie about Wall Street (right).  It certainly looks bigger than its population of only 300,000 would warrant, down from its peak of 675,000 in the early 1950s, and its location west of the Appalachians would culturally suggest.  Here are the consequences of deindustrialization and globalization, played out in what was one of the most productive and richest cities in America.

But unlike other rust-belt centres, Pittsburgh reinvented itself.  While still maintaining an industrial base, it has literally cleaned itself up (thank-you natural gas and pollution control) and built on its assets of education and technology.  You can see all this history in a single image:

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In the centre, the Gulf Building from 1932 – the tallest deco building of its era, and an expression of the wealth derived from the exploitation of natural resources.  Behind it, the U.S. Steel (or USX) tower from 1970 – another rugged expression of material and money.  Only now it is labelled as the UPMC building, some acronymic corporation, no doubt, probably churning financial instruments through a paper economy.

But no.  It stands for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre: a potent combination of university and corporation, knowledge and technology, medicine and real estate that expresses in physical form the new economy of Pittsburgh.

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