Pittsburgh architect draws admirers, awards
By David M. Brown
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Pittsburgh architect Art Lubetz admires the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the 20th-century visionary who designed Fallingwater in Fayette County and other masterpieces inspiring to generations of architects.
Lubetz differs with the master, though, on one professional observation.
“Frank Lloyd Wright used to say he didn’t draw a line until he had the whole building in his mind,” says Lubetz, 67, of Oakland. “That might be true. He might have been a super-duper genius. But for schleps like me and most other architects, it’s hard work to get there.”
The self-effacing comment hardly meshes with how others see him.
Lubetz is a visionary thinker in his own right, a gifted architect whose designs have added flare, vigor and rare dimensions to many buildings and abodes throughout his native Western Pennsylvania and other locales across the nation, say his peers, associates and a former student.
He speaks out to preserve worthy old structures, loves cats, collects vivid Czechoslovakian vases, reads vociferously, draws insight from 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and admits that years ago, he once pushed his Alfa Romeo to 118 mph late at night on the Parkway West.
Lubetz recently received an American Institute of Architects Honor Award at the Design Pittsburgh Awards. He was recognized for “extremely well done” work in the expansion and renovation of the Squirrel Hill branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He is founder and president of Lubetz Architects, an Oakland-based firm celebrating its 40th anniversary this fall.
“It’s notable that Art brings that kind of passionate approach to all the work he does, whether it’s residential, commercial or a public building, like a library,” said Anne-Marie Lubenau, an architect and executive director of the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that supports quality architecture.
“He is continually searching to bring fresh ideas to architecture, thinking out of the box, and creating places for people that are inspiring,” she said.
The library project, completed in April 2005, transformed what had been a nondescript structure at the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues into an architectural showcase with copper trimmings and abundant aqua glass. The glass-cube lobby juts out an angle toward Forbes Avenue. The $4.7 million renovation added 7,000 square feet, or 38 percent, new space for library users.
“Our buildings generally are noticeable,” says Lubetz, petting a pair of calico cats — Za and Ha — that paw at the architect for a share of his attention. The cats, sisters, are named after architect Zaha Hadid.
“As a result, people imagine that we are arrogant or something,” he says, “but it’s not for people to notice us. It’s for people to notice the architecture and notice what’s been done, so that maybe their awareness will be raised when they think about architecture.”
“I’m very intrigued by materials that are acted on by nature and change over time. We like copper because it changes. Glass changes throughout the day depending on how the sun hits it.”
The library’s glass walls and skylights were designed to let in sufficient sunlight to create the feeling of reading on a porch.
“Lots of light. That’s one characteristic of almost all our work. Light activates the life within architecture,” Lubetz said.
The panel of architects that bestowed the award said the library’s design “makes people re-think any preconceptions” about urban public libraries. “We bet this place just hops because it really strikes us as a place the community can own,” the panel said.
Among previous awards, Lubetz received honors for his Lincoln Towers housing complex near New York City and his design of the Hartford, Conn., City Hall.
He has taught architectural studio courses at Carnegie Mellon University since 1988. His wife, Karen Myres, a former CMU educator, is president of the Executive Women’s Council.
Former student Dan Cohen, 23, of Squirrel Hill, a recent CMU graduate, described Lubetz as inspirational.
“He taught us architecture is more than just four walls and a roof. It’s more than a pretty facade,” Cohen said. “It’s about putting into it this extra level of thought, which hopefully can translate over to something that the user can experience, and that’s what makes great architecture.”
As president of Preservation Pittsburgh in 2000, Lubetz was one of the leaders of a successful effort to block an attempt to demolish six square blocks of buildings in Downtown — the core of then-Mayor Tom Murphy’s development plan in the Fifth and Forbes corridor.
“He is a Pittsburgh architect who has long been in the forefront of modern design, but has enormous respect for the architecture of our past, and he is willing to stand up and defend it,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, another organization that opposed the plan to raze 68 buildings.
Lubetz has battled through some tough challenges — physical and professional — over the course of his life.
As a 19-year-old architecture student at then-Carnegie Institute of Technology, Lubetz was diagnosed with cornea disease that was leading to blindness. The prognosis threatened his career, but cornea transplants saved his vision. In his early 40s, he suffered a bout of multiple sclerosis that debilitated his right leg. A rigorous therapy regiment restored his use of it.
In July 1996, tragedy struck when his partner, architect Jill Watson, was killed in the crash of TWA Flight 800 near Long Island, N.Y. “She was a partner in the firm and in life and even in drawing. We would fight each other to put the next line on the paper,” Lubetz said at the time.
At a 40th anniversary celebration for his business, a guest asked Lubetz: “Wow. How did you do it?”
“Sometimes I can’t figure it out,” says Lubetz. “Our work is and has always been unusual.
“I think three characteristics I have gotten me through. I’m doggedly determined because I love what I do. I’m tenacious. And I have a major ability to deal with disappointment. I work hard for what I want and I work even harder to be happy with what I end up getting.”
David M. Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5614.