Re-Imagining the Modern

New book grapples with ambitious, contentious moment in Pittsburgh’s urban history

Aerial composite of Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill, including the proposed Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (Skidmore Owings & Merrill), and Washington Plaza Apartments (I. M. Pei & Associates), from an Alcoa advertisement, circa 1965. (Courtesy Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives)

Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance
Rami el Samahy, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo
The Monacelli Press
List Price: $50.00

In times of cynicism, revisiting more optimistic moments in architecture can conjure mixed emotions. Mid-century architects, designers, and planners exuded the optimistic belief that architecture and design could solve social ills worldwide—a spirit celebrated in recent exhibitions of Latin America and Yugoslavia at MoMA, and new books on Miami’s modernism.

In a new book, Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance (Monacelli Press), Rami el Samahy, Chis Grimley, and Michael Kubo paint a vivid picture of the mixed emotions evoked by the changing urban landscape in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city heralded as a role model of rustbelt reinvention. The book functions as an introduction to a complex moment in the city’s history, looking at Pittsburgh as a case study in a broader moment of urban renewal in many U.S. cities.

Pittsburgh was deemed “the Mecca of urban renewal” in Architectural Forum in 1957, and yet Imagining the Modern is the first book to chronicle the city’s modernist history in a comprehensive way. The book emerged from a 2015–2016 curatorial experiment at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center, overseen by curator Raymund Ryan. Ryan invited the book’s authors, principles of the Boston-based studio OverUnder, to be architects-in-residence in the museum and explore Pittsburgh’s contentious relationship to urban renewal in an exhibition. The trio went to great lengths to dig up photography, publications, ephemera, and other documents around five Pittsburgh neighborhoods and projects: Gateway Center, the Lower Hill, Allegheny Center, East Liberty, and Oakland. The exhibition’s walls were plastered with unsung gems from local archives, and a series of panel discussions affiliated with the exhibition added to the cacophony of voices measuring the legacy of urban renewal and how architects ought to respond.

Photo of a worn magazine cover with an illustrated birds eye view of downtown Pittsburgh

Cover of The Pittsburgh Press, 1953 (Courtesy The Pittsburgh Press)

Imagining the Modern distills this rich material in a manageable way, in the spirit of the authors’ reappraisal of Boston’s mid-century concrete, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (Monacelli Press). Their new book specifically deals with the built and imagined architectural transformations of Pittsburgh in the 1950s and ‘60s, and with even a quick flip through the book one can see the changing urban fabric of the city. Imagining the Modern includes a wonderful array of high-quality images and well-designed diagrams—from archival documents to photographs to city maps, the stunning visual display is captivating and invites the reader to explore “the manifold ways in which the modern was imagined in Pittsburgh.”

Imagining the Modern offers several modes of engagement rather than taking a strong position on Pittsburgh’s modern legacy. Scholars Kelly Hutzell, Caroline Constant, and Martin Aurand provide historical context and analysis for the development of Pittsburgh’s urban form and infrastructure. The book includes a series of diagrams entitled “Modern Networks” by Aurand that map the extensive networks of public and private entities that commissioned local modern architecture. The diagrams reflect the complexity of the patronage that funded this “Pittsburgh Renaissance;” one could spend hours trying to decipher the often confusing lines between architects, buildings (both built and unbuilt), commissions, and patrons.

At the heart of the book are archival documents, which the authors present as evidence for readers to arrive at their own conclusions. A section of the book is devoted to reproductions of excerpts from two “Visionary Documents” that outlined the challenges for modernist designers to solve—pollution, traffic congestion, housing, parking, urban blight—while also suggesting ways to remedy such issues through architecture and design. Imagining the Modern goes on to show readers how plans for Pittsburgh neighborhoods and infrastructure were marketed, sometimes successfully, to respond to these issues through superlatives and dazzling renderings.

Black and white photo of four people playing golf in downtown Pittsburgh

Lynette May, Gerri Walker, Shirley Jenkins, and Alberts Thompson hitting golf balls at Washington Plaza putting field with Civic Arena in the background, August 1969 (Charles “Teenie” Harris, © Carnegie Museum of Art, Charles “Teenie” Harris Archive)

Pittsburgh positioned itself as a “Cinderella City,” as a headline put it in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on June 30, 1953: “Ridiculed, scorned and snubbed for over a century and a half, Pittsburgh throws off her pall to become the ‘City of Tomorrow.’” As steel production left the region and factories closed in the 1950s and ‘60s, dazzling buildings of mid-century modern buildings by leading architects rose with a zeal unfathomable today. Harrison & Abramovitz, Mitchell & Ritchey, Simonds & Simonds, and Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), to name a few, all built memorable works in Pittsburgh around this time. Imagining the Modern shows the development of the city’s most iconic buildings alongside ambitious plans that remain unbuilt, including one scheme that proposed filling the Oakland neighborhood’s Panther Hollow ravine with a mile-long research facility to bridge the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

Rather than allowing the beautiful architectural renderings and photography to simply seduce the reader—which, occasionally, they do—Imagining the Modern also shows a collection of excerpts from the architectural and popular press responding to these proposals. The book juxtaposes the cheerleading coverage of The Pittsburgh Press alongside the coordinated, albeit unsuccessful, campaign by The Pittsburgh Courier to thwart plans for the displacement of thousands of mostly Black residents of the Lower Hill. The book’s photography also humanizes the actors on both sides of the city’s transformation, with moving images of people designing, building, debating, celebrating, protesting, photographing, and using the new works.

Abstract, hand-drawn map of buildings and streets

Community map of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Community Design Associates & Troy West, 1971 (Courtesy Troy West)

Refreshingly, the book complexifies the role of architects in this transformative moment as well. Interviews and works by Troy West, for example, show that architects weren’t only the handmaidens of the powerful—his teaching and collaborative practices, which he operated as Architecture 2001 and Community Design Associates, offered an alternative model to the top-down design and planning approaches that often mar the legacy of postwar design.

Instead of staking claims about the history of Pittsburgh’s modernism, Imagining the Modern showcases the debate that optimistic work by designers and planners continue to provoke. At a time when cities across the U.S. are working tirelessly to reverse the effects of urban renewal—understood as a pseudonym for “Negro removal,” as Dr. Mindy Fullilove suggests in her book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, And What We Can Do About It—this book asks readers to take a closer look at a few urban visions through a mix of historical essays, sexy images, riotous press clippings, enlightening diagrams, insightful interviews, and informative project descriptions that offer everyone an entry into a fraught urban and architectural moment.

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