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Competition draws out ideas for public spaces

Tuesday, October 09, 2001

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Architecture Critic

Little by little, piece by piece, the sides of Lawrenceville’s Doughboy Square have fallen away.

The demolition of historic but deteriorated commercial buildings in recent years has left the square — really a triangle — looking and feeling like little more than the tired and uneventful coming together of Butler Street and Penn Avenue, the neighborhood’s two main thoroughfares.

The 1902 beaux arts former Pennsylvania National Bank building within the crotch of the Y — capably restored in the early 1990s by its owner/occupant, the architectural firm Charles L. Desmone and Associates — and the Doughboy himself give the square character and a sense of place, but they cannot handle the whole job by themselves. Urban public spaces are defined by their perimeter walls, and big chunks of Doughboy Square’s walls have gone missing.

Architects Christine Brill and Jonathan Kline, who live just up the street, would like to change that.

“We want it to be a place of celebration,” said Brill, who with Kline entered Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation’s recent competition for the design of public spaces and squares, open to architects, landscape architects, planners and artists under the age of 35. They were invited to come up with ideas for making eight historic public spaces in the city more attractive and more usable.

The eight spaces ranged from large public plazas, such as Market Square, Downtown, and the sunken plaza at Allegheny Center on the North Side, to tiny Lyndhurst Green in Point Breeze and the area formed by the convergence of three streets in Troy Hill.

Although 24 individuals or teams initially expressed interest, in the end PHLF received only seven entries — a disappointingly tiny fraction of the young designers working here. The seven ideas, detailed in models and presentations boards, are on view through Oct. 21 at the Mattress Factory, 500 Sampsonia Way, Manchester.

The Brill/Kline entry for Doughboy Square, which didn’t win a prize, nevertheless was the most ambitious, professional, detailed and carefully thought out scheme. It is, as they put it, “an attempt to set the stage for Doughboy Square to be filled with life again.”

Two years ago, the 20-something architects bought a house on Penn Avenue, a little more than two blocks up from the square. Brill passes through the square every morning on her walk Downtown, where she works at Pfaffmann + Associates.

“Aside from the bank building, it’s the least memorable space in the walk,” Brill said. “There’s so much potential that’s unrealized.”

The Brill/Kline plan calls for wider, brick sidewalks around the Doughboy and elsewhere along the square, which would accommodate new trees and seating for outdoor cafes.

For infill buildings, Kline and Brill wrote urban design guidelines regulating height, massing, use and parking in a manner consistent with the existing neighborhood. But the guidelines don’t dictate style, inviting a variety of architectural expression.

The plan also shifts the focus of the square to the west, creating new public space and a new monument, at the corner of Penn Avenue and 34th Street, which serves as a terminus to Butler Street. Part observation tower and part Victorian folly, the 60-foot steel-and-copper monument celebrates Lawrenceville’s industrial heritage, with winding interior stairs providing close-up views of a collage of salvaged architectural fragments. Kline and Brill see it not as dwarfing and dominating the Doughboy but as having a dialogue with it.

Relocated traffic lights ensure that vehicles stop before they enter the square, to create a safer pedestrian zone and to signify arrival.

But Kline and Brill, who are among the co-founders of the activist group Ground Zero, didn’t stop there. They see the square’s redevelopment as a catalyst for broader neighborhood revitalization, with streetscape improvements on 33rd and 35th streets, a new street connecting 33rd and 35th streets and a new riverfront park. They also would transform the railroad trestle above 33rd Street into a gateway, with a linear light sculpture leading to the river.

There are, to be sure, other worthy entries, including that of the $5,000 first-place winner, architect Nathan Hart of Oakland, who rightly recognized that Oakland Square needs only to be tweaked, not overhauled. Hart believes improvements there would encourage home-ownership on the square and keep it from suffering the absentee-landlord fate of other parts of Oakland.

The square — a tree-filled rectangle surrounded by middle-class houses off Dawson Street — gets a modest tree-thinning, new curbs and new planting beds, but is otherwise unchanged. Enhancements include an arbor gateway leading to a terraced garden at the east end of the square, stepping down the hillside into Panther Hollow.

Hart proposes an assisted living facility and child-care center for the west end of the square, as well as solutions for pedestrian and vehicular issues. And Hart, too, extends his reach beyond the square, suggesting locations for a community deli, elementary school and supermarket, in the hope of attracting more families to his neighborhood.

The $2,000, second-place award went to Nick Tobier and Rebekah Modra, who came up with the competition’s most poetic and fanciful, if not the most practical, solution — a balloon launch area for Troy Hill’s main intersection.

The $1,000, third-place prize was presented to a team comprising artist Carin Mincemoyer and four staff members of the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum — Thad Bobula, Keny Marshall, Laura Shaffalo and Chris Seifert — for turning Allegheny Center’s plaza into a naturalistic pond.

In the spring, PHLF will launch another public space competition for young designers, one that will allow them to generate ideas for “orphaned public spaces.”

“They’re the leftover spaces, perhaps full of weeds or trash, where there’s been a building or a highway put in, and nobody wanted this space,” said Barry Hannegan, PHLF’s director of historic design programs. “They’re negative elements that do nothing to improve the image of the city, where an intelligent design intervention would immeasurably enhance the city’s appearance.”

There’s a $10,000 purse that will be awarded any way the jury sees fit, so it’s possible a single entry could claim the entire prize — a strong incentive that should encourage more designers to take the challenge.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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