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Original architectural design can be quite comfortable

ptrLIVarchitecture3101616
John Conti | for the Tribune-Review
In a nearly total renovation of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art recently, the architects added a new gallery that dramatically cantilevered out over the museum's hillside site. To help bring the old and new together the architects then inserted doorways and windows at both ends of the building that reflect the angle of that new gallery's facade.
ptrLIVarchitecture1101616
John Conti | for the Tribune-Review
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art
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John Conti | for the Tribune-Review
In a nearly total renovation of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art recently, the architects added a new gallery that dramatically cantilevered out over the museum's hillside site. To help bring the old and new together the architects then inserted doorways and windows at both ends of the building that reflect the angle of that new gallery's facade.
ptrLIVarchitecture4101616
John Conti | for the Tribune-Review
The rear facade of the new Environmental Center at Frick Park has columns, windows and wood paneling arranged in a seemingly random way, a design that reflects the random placement of trees in the woods behind the Center.
ptrLIVarchitecture5101616
John Conti | for the Tribune-Review
Sunday afternoon visitors to the Carnegie Museums take no notice of the museums' trash handling facility (at left) as they walk to the entrance that's nearest to parking. The architects used color, materials and proportions to make the facility unobtrusive.
ptrLIVarchitecture6101616
John Conti | for the Tribune-Review
Instead of putting their 32-story building right up against Heinz Hall and its garden, the designers of EQT Plaza put a low, four-story section of the building at the side nearest the landmark. This helps keep the skyscraper from dominating the scene.

Architects these days try to make many, if not most, of their buildings fit comfortably within their surroundings. And when they do so, it’s often in ways that might not be readily apparent to most of us.

It’s like those situations where we say we’re certain we admire something, but we can’t quite put our finger on the exact reason.

To illustrate that, here from around our area are five examples, older and newer, of how architects working with care and originality can make us comfortable with a building and its site in ways we may not notice. If you get a chance to walk by or visit one of these sites, take a moment to stop and look.

The “Black Box” at the museum: When the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History in Oakland filled in an interior courtyard to expand the natural history museum’s dinosaur exhibits in 2009, it needed to find a new site outside to hold its trash-handling facilities, long hidden away in that courtyard. The only suitable space, though, was right where hundreds of visitors walk daily from the below-grade parking garage to the much-used rear entrance of the museums.

The solution of the architecture firm EDGE Studio (now GBBN) was to create an unobtrusive facility that looks a little like a black cube, with consistently black surface panels on two sides of the most obvious front part of the building, and translucent paneling on the rest. The translucent paneling is the part closest to the 1907 facade of the main building and matches its grayness, while the smooth, unadorned black metal panels, adjacent to the sidewalks and museum-goers, keep the building from calling attention to itself.

But if you stop to look carefully, you will see one further reason the design fits in so well — the black panels share the proportions of the dark red stone panels on the Scaife Galleries, a 1974 addition to the art museum by Edward Larrabee Barnes. The EDGE building is different from both the 1907 building and the 1970s addition, but it deliberately avoids asserting itself by complementing both the new and the old architecture that it’s near.

Fitting-in with Frick’s woods: Architects at the local office of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson did something similar to the rear facade of the new Environmental Center at Frick Park, which opened last month. This building is set low on a hillside that slopes toward the deep woods of the park’s nature preserve behind it. In order to obtrude as little as possible into one of the park’s main entranceways, it’s one story at the front and three at the back. That’s to be expected.

But when you go to the rear — where the trails lead into the dense woods — if you look back at the three-story facade, you see something very sophisticated and out of the ordinary. The building’s tall and thin columns and its windows are not arranged in any regular pattern. The placement of columns, windows and wood paneling is meant to look random — just as trees standing in the woods are random. This is a subtle difference, but a telling one that helps bring this fine new building into harmony with the woods behind it.

Holding skyscrapers down to size: Two big Downtown Pittsburgh building projects from the 1980s — PPG Place and EQT Plaza on Liberty Avenue were especially planned to respect their neighbors. At PPG Place, famous architect Philip Johnson and partner John Burgee conceived a 40-story office tower and five lower buildings, four of them just six stories high. These four lower buildings bring the scale of the project down closer to the low-rise buildings around Market Square. This eliminated the feeling that you might otherwise have had if just one tall dominant building had been put up so close to the square.

At EQT, the New York firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox designed a building in three parts. There’s the 32-story central tower, a connected 20-story section that matches the bulk of the Midtown Towers building on one side and, the best touch of all, a four-story wing that matches the height of Heinz Hall on the other side. Taking care to not overshadow a local landmark is an act of civility that is often lacking in new developments.

Bringing it all together: The Westmoreland Museum of American Art reopened a year ago this month after an extensive remodeling by Ennead Architects. The architects faced the problem of melding a large modern addition with a rather plain, vaguely Georgian older building. The addition features a dramatic modern gallery with a slanting face that cantilevered out over its hillside site above Greensburg. To bring the old and new together, one of the things they did was add more slanting features elsewhere on the building inside and out, with new interior doorways and windows reflecting the slanting angle of the addition.

Architects have many tools they can use to manipulate how we feel about a building. But we often are not totally aware of just what it is that makes a building fit well with its site.

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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