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Children’s Museum award launches plaza repairs

Pittsburgh Post GazetteFriday, July 20, 2007
By Patricia Lowry,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Allegheny Square, the poorly maintained, concrete heart of the North Side’s Allegheny Center, could be in line for a dramatic makeover, sparked by the desire of the Children’s Museum to transform the 1960s plaza into what museum director Jane Werner calls “a green, sustainable park that’s actually used.”

To help get the process started, the museum has scheduled a collaborative design workshop for tomorrow, using a $50,000 cash prize it is receiving today for winning first place in the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence competition for its 2004 expansion.

Representatives of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Bruner Foundation will present the Gold Medal award this afternoon at the Children’s Museum.

The museum expansion, by Koning Eizenberg Architects of Santa Monica, Calif., and Perkins Eastman Architects of Pittsburgh, was chosen as the best of nearly 100 projects around the country for its blend of historic preservation and innovative, green design, as well as for the museum’s collaborations and partnerships with other organizations.

The Bruner Award is the museum’s second significant national honor; it won a design award from the American Institute of Architects last year.

At tomorrow’s workshop, to be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in front of the museum, six design firms will meet with museum-goers, North Side residents and other community members to learn what features they would like to see in a new park and town square.

The six designers are landscape architect Andrea Cochran, San Francisco; La Dallman Architects, Milwaukee; architect Doug Garofalo, Chicago; landscape architect Walter Hood, Berkeley, Calif.; landscape architect Dina Klavon, Pittsburgh; and landscape architect Paula Meijerink, Boston. They were chosen from a field of 25 designers, based on portfolios of past work, by representatives of the museum, local design community and the North Side neighborhood.

Everyone is invited to tomorrow’s workshop — or charrette — and those who attend can consult base-map drawings of the existing plaza to produce their own schemes on tracing paper.

Four sand boxes will be set up with scaled items such as people, benches, trees, trash cans and lights, and visitors can design their own parks in three dimensions. Digital cameras will document the designs to capture ideas before other visitors have a go at it.

Participants also can write the top three features they would like to see in the park, as well as the top three functions they would like it to serve, on quilt squares that will be hung for display.

“It’s a little bit free-form,” Ms. Werner said.

While museum staffers conduct the hands-on activities, the six competing designers will be talking with participants and perhaps drawing with them, Ms. Werner said. “It’ll be a little like speed-dating.”

In October, designers will submit their schemes, which will be informally reviewed in a series of community meetings. Later that month, a jury of national design professionals and community leaders will pick the winning designer.

The multilevel Allegheny Square is one of the city’s most interesting but least used public spaces, with a large, stepped, sunken fountain — now defunct — designed to double as an amphitheater and three overlooks that provide views into the plaza, as well as shade.

“I worked at Buhl [Science Center] in 1982,” Ms. Werner said. “I remember the fountain working and kids running through it. But it was so hot to sit out there because there was no shade and it was always a little scary to go under the overhangs.”

The designers could retain some elements of the plaza or reference two of its earlier, greener iterations. Diamond Square had perimeter trees, intersecting diagonal paths and a central, circular fountain surrounded by benches.

In 1939, with the construction of Buhl Planetarium, the fountain was removed and the square redesigned and renamed Ober Park (honoring the fountain’s donor), but remained mostly lawn.

“The Children’s Museum wants to create a new oasis in the city for families, college students, the elderly, Children’s Museum visitors and workers, as well as a place for community events — in a way that builds upon the strengths of the plaza’s history,” said Chris Siefert, the museum’s deputy director.

The designers have been asked to create a green, sustainable park, but have been given a free hand in interpreting what that means.

Although the park could be built within five years, there is no fixed timeline or budget.

The museum will use the Bruner Award’s cash prize to help plan the new park and town square, and also to launch the “Charm Bracelet” project linking North Side and North Shore attractions. One idea is to create a temporary art gallery within the Federal Street underpass.

The Bruner Foundation was established in New York in 1963 by Rudy Bruner, a Romanian immigrant who built a small metals company in a Brooklyn basement into a multimillion dollar public corporation. He and his wife Martha established the foundation “to create opportunity for others, and to instigate meaningful social change,” according to its Web site,

The Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, given every two years, was founded in 1987 by their son, architect Simeon Bruner of Cambridge, who now heads the foundation. The award is dedicated to discovering and celebrating urban places “distinguished by quality design, and by their social, economic and contextual contributions to the urban environment.”

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633