Tag: Tasso Katselas

  • Gone but Not Regretted

    East Mall Apartments

    “I bestride the narrow street like a colossus,” said the East Mall Apartments. They were put up literally on top of Penn Avenue, with a narrow passage for a trickle of traffic, in 1970. The architect was Tasso Katselas, early in his decades-long reign as the leading architect of giant public works in Pittsburgh, and to be fair to him he gave the city just what it thought it wanted: a skyscraper warehouse for poor people. In fact Katselas didn’t like what the city was doing to East Liberty at all, according to this interesting article about his career. But it was good money for an architect.

    “Urban renewal” was all the rage in the 1960s and into the 1970s, and it was pushed with evangelical ardor. But it was never quite clear what “urban renewal” was supposed to be. Often it was a combination of suburbanization and Bauhausization. The things that were distinctive about city neighborhoods—concentrated commercial districts, rowhouses, churches and schools and backstreet groceries just down the street—had to give way to shopping centers, suburban-style tract homes, and modernist towers-in-a-park. One after another, these projects crippled or killed the neighborhoods they were inflicted on, but the urban-renewal evangelists were sure that the next one would be a howling success.

    East Liberty was subjected to a particularly strong dose of urban renewal. Penn Avenue, the commercial spine of the neighborhood that had been known as the “second downtown” of Pittsburgh, was closed to vehicles and made into a pedestrian mall. Traffic was diverted to “Penn Circle,” an orbital boulevard made by widening and consolidating peripheral streets and blowing up whatever didn’t fit with the new vision of East Liberty. And apartment towers like this one went up to house people displaced from their neighborhoods by urban renewal. Three of them were designed by Tasso Katselas—this one and the even taller Penn Circle and Liberty Park apartments. Of the three, this was the one that sealed the urban-renewal project, because this was the one that defiantly went up right on top of Penn Avenue, as a guarantee that the main boulevard of the business district would never again carry substantial vehicular traffic. (An artist friend of Father Pitt’s, noting the odd flared buttresses that flanked the narrow passage for vehicles, described the building as “lifting its skirts for cars to go under.”)

    Pedestrianization projects in the United States have seldom succeeded. Old Pa Pitt would love to see most of Pittsburgh closed to automobile traffic, but he recognizes that the rest of the world does not share his prejudices against motor vehicles. Keeping them away keeps their drivers away, and businesses flounder. Urban planners figured that out after a few decades’ worth of failures, and modern urban planning—finally—tends in the direction of emphasizing rather than destroying what is unique about city neighborhoods. Not coincidentally, suburbanites are moving back into the city.

    Father Pitt took this picture in about 2001. The East Mall Apartments were blown to bits in 2005 in a controlled demolition, and traffic was allowed to flow on Penn Avenue once more without going through somebody’s basement. That same year, Tasso Katselas retired from active architecture, although he still served his firm as a consultant. As of this writing, Mr. Katselas is still alive at the age of 94 or 95, having survived a good bit longer than several of his buildings.

    Do we miss those buildings? Not much; they represent an embarrassing failure in the history of our urban planning. But in his modernist idiom, Tasso Katselas did develop a distinctive style. The classic modernists like Mies van der Rohe insisted on simple lines and flat slabs of identical windows. But Katselas from the beginning preferred a much more cluttered aesthetic. He sometimes seemed like a child playing with blocks, deliberately misaligning them just to see what would happen, as we see here in the staggered façade of the East Mall Apartments. We should also mention that he had a strong understanding of what was practical in a public building. His terminal for the Pittsburgh International Airport is a masterpiece of practical design: everything was thought through with the paramount object of making the functions of an airport work as well as they possibly could. That kind of practical thinking was rare among modernist architects, and Father Pitt praises Katselas unreservedly for it, even if the buildings give old Pa Pitt the visual impression of dance music that you can’t dance to.

  • 625 Stanwix Tower

    This is an early work of Tasso Katselas, whose public buildings litter our landscape. Every generation seems to produce a favorite court architect, the darling of the Allegheny County nobility, and Tasso Katselas was that architect until his retirement about ten years ago.

    This particular building, built in 1966 as Allegheny Towers, is on many short lists of the ugliest buildings downtown, and Father Pitt tends to agree with that assessment. It is a parking garage halfway up; then, on top of that, there is a stack of miscellaneous apartments that look as though someone piled them there temporarily, intending to slide them into a finished building later. There is no rhythm to the apartment section, not even a jazzy syncopation; the windows are random noise. Compare it to the one arm of the cool and elegant Two Gateway Center behind it and to the left, or the textured glass wall of PPG Place behind that, and its lack of harmony will be immediately apparent.

    But Father Pitt would not have you dismiss Tasso Katselas on the basis of this one building, which is probably very comfortable for the residents. He has given us buildings Father Pitt loathes with a passion, and buildings Father Pitt loves with an immeasurable love. His Pittsburgh International Airport terminal is peerless: the best airport terminal Father Pitt has ever seen. It minimizes the distances between the farthest gates; it controls security easily (and remember that it was built at a time when security was not nearly so much of an obsession as it is now); and it is the only airport terminal Father Pitt knows where every word of the pages and announcements is clearly audible. How many times have you been in another airport and found yourself thinking, “I hope Mrnmkh Pthhrmrmpt recognizes his name, because I certainly don’t”? That never happens at Pitt, and it took some serious architectural thinking to make those acoustics happen.

    And that is the thing that probably made Tasso Katselas’ career: his buildings may be beautiful or ugly, but they are almost always practical. They work very well for their intended purposes, because the architect has clearly taken accommodating those intended purposes as his first duty, rather than as a luxury that one might be able to afford after one has indulged one’s pet design obsessions.

    Camera: Konica-Minolta DiMAGE Z3.