By MARTY LEVINE
Here's a Pitt question that’s been burning in my mind for years — 4615 Forbes Ave., between Pitt and CMU campuses, is a building that is clearly some kind of scale model of Hillman Library. It isn't just a casual resemblance. The building has been designed to imitate details of Hillman. For example, the canopy over the first-floor entrance to Hillman, forced by reduced scale to be closer to the ground, is made into a projecting landing from the front staircase in 4615. The down-ramped ground-floor entrances in Hillman were made the entrances to a basement garage at 4615. What's the story of our library's baby brother?
History Department, Pitt–Greensburg
There is definitely a family resemblance here between these two buildings — but what’s the family, and who is the real baby brother?
Turns out Hillman is slightly younger than 4615 Forbes. Our library opened in 1968, whereas 4615 Forbes began life in 1965 as the home of the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation and is now owned by Carnegie Mellon University.
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CMU’s senior director of planning and design, Bob Reppe (speaking through campus spokesman Jason Maderer), says the building was sold to the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh in the late 1990s and finally bought by CMU in 2012. “It was then rebranded as 4615 Forbes (although in true Pittsburgh fashion, everyone still calls it GATF),” they say.
In a new book, “Imagining the Modern: Architecture, Urbanism and the Pittsburgh Renaissance,” a pair of designers and an architecture professor have placed illustrations of the two buildings side by side (on page 251) but say not a word about the resemblance — although, in stark line drawings, the visual echo is now extra-obvious, especially because the buildings are rendered in the same horizontal dimension.
4615 Forbes, the book says, was designed by Williams, Trebilcock, Whitehead, with two levels underground and two above. Those visible bits are praised as “a highly expressive exercise in exposed precast concrete” with “a carefully detailed vertical grid (that) wraps the structure and highlights the windows.”
The similarly four-story Hillman Library — albeit massively enlarged, with most of it effectively above ground — is credited to Celli-Flynn & Associates. To those of us who lack an architectural education, the long stretch of windows makes these buildings look alike. But here the grid is labelled “a nearly continuous band of clerestory windows” (panes that light the interior from above) coupled with “oriel windows with angled sides ... (that) project rhythmically from the building’s facades...” — bay windows, essentially.
Clearly, these big, excessively concrete buildings resemble each other because they are from the same era and the same architectural family — brutalism.
Ah, brutalism: a construction philosophy that isn’t afraid to acknowledge the infliction of pain. Just two years ago, Architectural Digest opined that there was a reason brutalist buildings were “more important now than ever before” — which tacitly admits that they don’t exactly have the best reputation today.
Here’s the intro: “For decades brutalist architecture was a symbol of the underclass. Soulless, gray, crumbling concrete structures were something to escape from. Today, however, brutalism is back in style. In an age where gentrification is a dirty word, these hulking masses represent an extraordinary period of incredible optimism and determination to use architecture to transform society.”
That’s not exactly damning with faint praise. It’s not even praising with faint damnation. The damnation is clear.
Well, if you want to ask the authors of “Imagining the Modern” (Rami El Samahy, Chris Grimley and Michael Kubo) why the twinning went unnoticed, they’ll be speaking Nov. 11 at CMU’s Kresge Theatre.
In the meantime, yes, there is a reason that these structures, separated at birth by only a few blocks, look alike. They had, if not the same mother, at least the same mindset.
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.