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Tower at PNC Plaza

Each year when the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects hands out awards for outstanding work by local design firms, the awards are judged by committees of out-of-town architects.

The judges do not know (except when they may recall something from trade publications) who the architects on any particular project might be.

So it is all the more striking that some local firms — or national firms with local offices — seem to win something in this local competition almost every year.

Among the firms taking home the 14 citations announced at a recent ceremony at the August Wilson Center were perennial winners GBBN Architects (the former EDGE Studio), with offices in Garfield; the Rothschild Doyno Collaborative in the Strip District; Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ); and Gensler. BCJ and Gensler, both of which are national firms with local offices Downtown, each won two awards.

Also winning two awards, and also among the perennial winners in each of the last several years, is the Urban Design Build Studio affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University.

Its entries are usually highly innovative, small-scale, student-driven projects designed and built as part of the students’ education. They usually relate to some urban need.

The awards every year show that though we are still generally a fairly conservative town where new architecture is concerned, there is nevertheless some very good architecture practiced here.

Indeed, GBBN, Rothschild Doyno and Gensler also have all won not just local but also national AIA Honor Awards in recent years, and Peter Bohlin, a founding principal of BCJ who is based in Wilkes-Barre, was awarded in 2010 the AIA Gold Medal, the national organization’s highest award.

The winners this year show some remarkable imagination.

Rothschild Doyno’s winning plan is to take the still-standing skeleton of an old steel-mill building and convert it to a sort of horizontal cathedral of steel leading toward the river at the foot of 41st Street in Lawrence-ville. A football field in length and some 50 feet tall, this structure — though not large compared to some of the mill buildings that we used to know in this area — will still be large enough to give some sense of the scale of the mills that once dominated our geography.

It will frame a public plaza between a 182-unit, five-story apartment development called “The Foundry at Forty-First,” designed by Rothschild Doyno, and a large office building. The apartment complex will open next year. The office building is still in planning stages.

GBBN won for its creative renovation of the Carnegie Library Branch in Knoxville. The building was a striking 1960s original in the once-trendy, bare-concrete Brutalist style by architect Paul Schweikher. The renovations, while not changing the existing dramatic shapes of the building, opened it more to the street, arrayed daylight-filled additions at both the front and back of the building and, among other things, enlarged the children’s spaces and provided a dedicated area for teens.

Appropriately, the national AIA award that GBBN won just this past summer is for the “Hive” — a small project within the interior of the Carnegie branch in East Liberty that also sets off a special place for teens. GBBN has taken strides toward becoming an international firm in recent years. It has offices in Louisville and Cincinnati, acquired the EDGE Studio here in Pittsburgh, and now has an office in Beijing.

BCJ’s two award-winning projects were very different from each other. The conversion of a former Baltimore area Sam’s Club, a typical big-box store, into attractive modern office spaces resulted in what the judges called “an energizing, state-of-the-art work environment.”

The second award was for a suite of new small structures on the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s land at Fallingwater, in Fayette County. This new grouping of primarily residential spaces is at the edge of a hill in what the Conservancy calls the High Meadow. It’s a short distance from the famous house by Frank Lloyd Wright, but not visible from there. It provides tasteful and architecturally inventive, but not obtrusive, quarters for students, educators and scholars meeting at Fallingwater for seminars and conferences.

Gensler’s awards were both for the new PNC Plaza office tower Downtown. One is for the overall design and the other for excellence in “sustainable design.” PNC likes to say that its new headquarters building is the most environmentally efficient skyscraper in the world. Its many features — such as ventilation, water conservation, heating and cooling — all require far lower amounts of energy than other tall office buildings. In line with these precedent-setting attributes, it came out as a very sophisticated, attractive and distinctive-looking office building, as well.

There’s a large handful of other outstanding architecture and planning firms in Pittsburgh — both large and small — but the repeat winners this year have certainly stood out.

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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