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New Frick Park center fits and celebrates its environment

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Nic Lehoux
A view of the back of the new Frick Environmental Center
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Nic Lehoux
Solar panels at the new Frick Environmental Center
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Nic Lehoux
A water feature outside the new Frick Environmental Center
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Nic Lehoux
An amphitheater sits outside the Frick Environmental Center
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Jeremy Marshall
The Frick Environmental Center interior stairwells feature raw concrete and natural light
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Scott Roller
Furniture at the Frick Environmental Center is made from reclaimed wood.

The best architecture usually expresses its purpose and respects its place. It doesn’t mislead you as to what kind of building it is, and it most often complements its site.

That’s what the architects who designed the new Environmental Center at Frick Park were aiming to do, and they have succeeded exceptionally well.

This brand-new environmental education facility will open with a “family-friendly public celebration” at 10 a.m. Sept. 10. A joint project of the city and the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, it is an impressive achievement.

The center is situated just inside the Beechwood Boulevard gates to Frick Park — the ones just up the hill from Forbes Avenue. This will be the third environmental center on this site. The last one burned in 2002, and this long-awaited new one stands essentially on the footprint of the old one.

It is, at first glance, a modest-appearing building of glass and wood siding, with gray metal trim and small amounts of gray block. But to call the building modest can be a bit misleading. Its materials and concept are simple and direct, but they are combined with such a sure hand architecturally that the building — when viewed from the trails below — can be quite dramatic.

It is built along a hillside that slopes away to the right just beyond the park gates and has an almost flat roof that rises slightly toward the back and projects outward with broad eaves. It is one story at the front, but three at the back, with the back facing the woods and park trails.

It was designed by the Pittsburgh office of Bohlin Cywinsky Jackson, a national firm with a long and distinguished record of fine contemporary buildings.

The building is designed to meet what’s called the Living Building Challenge. That’s no small thing. It means the building will use no more energy or resources than it will create itself. It will be heated and cooled with geothermal heat pumps. It will generate enough electricity from solar cells to match its annual needs. Its waste-water will be treated on site, and rainwater also will be captured on-site — not sent into the city’s storm drains.

The Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory in Oakland also was designed to meet the Living Building Challenge, so Pittsburgh now has two fine examples of this highest standard in energy-efficient building technology. Plus, with the new PNC Tower Downtown being among the “greenest” skyscrapers anywhere, Pittsburgh need not get in line behind any other city where green buildings are concerned.

When you enter the park between the Beechwood Boulevard gatehouses — two rustic French pavilions built in the 1930s to the designs of John Russell Pope — you will see the new Environmental Center to your right. It is deliberately set below the treetops to make it less conspicuous, and you can enter it from either side, descending on a curving walkway and across a small bridge in each case. The descent to a bridge makes the entrance experience especially memorable. Kids will love it. At the ends of the bridges are special children’s doors — about 5 feet high — set adjacent to the usual adult doors.

Inside are classrooms designed for hands-on environmental learning, a gallery and other facilities plus offices for the Conservancy’s education staff. The classrooms will be the base for programs in which children will go out into the park’s 115-acre nature preserve, exploring its woods, streams and trails.

The building is supplemented by an outdoor hillside amphitheater and a fascinating rain-collection system. Rain pours off the roof in sheets at the front of the building (the architects call it a “rain veil”), collects in a trough and then runs down along the building through a beautifully sculptured spillway that resembles the kind of contour lines you might see on a topographic map. At the bottom of the spillway, behind the building, is a rain garden.

The city and the Conservancy are planning to restore the two brick pavilions that Pope designed to frame the formal entrance to the park. (A favorite of Henry Clay Frick, Pope is best known as the designer of the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.).

Working with the Pittsburgh landscape architecture firm LaQuatra Bonci, they also are creating a traditional allee of trees, more than 100 yards long, that will lead from the gates to a restored fountain. The fountain will flow with rainwater collected and stored from solar panels erected over the parking lots.

The canopy of solar panels that slopes over the parking lots at the left of the gates is right now the only significantly disconcerting part of the overall design. Solar panels just don’t go well with the nearby 17th-century-style gates that Pope designed. But, of course, you can resolve the cognitive dissonance if you think hard enough about the virtues of environmental efficiency. Ultimately, it’s likely the plantings will, as they mature, soften the effect of seeing all those solar panels laid out before you. Plus, in very hot weather, the solar panels also will shade the cars.

All in all, this is one of the best new buildings we’ve seen in Pittsburgh in recent years. It should work well for many years to come.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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