Mindful Brewing. Ace Hotel. The Tower at PNC. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The Aspinwall Marina. The Foundry at 41st. Uber Advanced Technology Research Center.

All these recently completed building projects have one thing in common: They are local winners in the last two years of Design Awards bestowed by the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Mindful Brewing, designed by mossArchitects. Photo by Brian Conway.

The annual awards are a major deal for architects (and engineers, designers and others involved in projects), and also for the public. They raise the bar for architecture in Pittsburgh by promoting good design and, hopefully, inspiring others to do the same.

Architecture is the most public of arts, defining our cityscape and providing the setting — inspired or otherwise — for our everyday lives.

Our city is known for its great historic architecture, with gorgeous buildings such as the Union Trust and Frick Building Downtown, and a strong stock of housing throughout the city, from Foursquare to Victorian to bungalows.

How do we build on that legacy and continue to create good architecture — and what is hitting the mark lately?

In timing with AIA Pittsburgh’s Design Gala on October 25, where the 2018 Design Awards will be announced, we asked local architects to tell us what it will take to raise the bar for architectural design in Pittsburgh and share their thinking on the best projects in town.

Moore Ruble Yudell served as lead architects on the Tepper Quad project. Photo courtesy of CMU.

Powerful design with a social mission

“Great design comes from great clients who have a certain literacy about designs,” says Rob Pfaffmann, owner of Pfaffmann + Associates. “I like to point to clients who have hired lots of great architects who have done great work. Look at the work at Carnegie Mellon over the years versus Pitt. There’s a certain culture — a design culture — at CMU.”

Other buildings and projects he names: Hazelwood Green (“I think they’re going in the right direction”), the School of Public Health at Pitt (“They’re starting to do better buildings”) and the Action Housing Building on Penn Avenue.

“I like projects that have a social mission and good design at the same time. Where we’re weak is housing and that’s the nature of economics and spatial requirements,” he says. “That’s where it’s hard.”

Pfaffmann isn’t alone in his interest in buildings with a social mission.

“The most engaging pieces of architecture have a socially conscious agenda,” says Robert Tuñón, an associate with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative. “I’m inspired by what’s happening in Braddock right now surrounding the new Hollander Project by two women meant for women. Making the most of what they have with not the biggest budget.”

Tuñón also cites the Moose in Millvale by New Sun Rising, which houses their own offices, plus a co-working space and 412 Food Rescue. And the Frick Environmental Center, for “the idea of completing a living building challenge and how difficult that is. That’s inspiring from a performance level.”

Frick Environmental Center wide shot

The Frick Environmental Center. Architects: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Photo by HB Arch Photo.

On another front, he recognizes a Rothschild Doyno client, the Lawrenceville Community Land Trust. “Here’s an organization dedicated to addressing affordability in a community where housing prices are absolutely skyrocketing and finding a way for long-term residents who are now renting to have home ownership.”

Architect Anne Chen of GBBN agrees: Good architecture design, she says, “has to be public. It has to reach people, something that has an aspiration for good for all. And it has to speak to a future, with a language that looks forward and not back.”

She notes the Gateway Light Rail station for its transparency and its use of steel, a project of Edge Architecture, where she once worked, and Pfaffmann + Associates. “It’s very much the future of Pittsburgh.”

Gateway Station, Downtown. Photo by Ed Massery.

The Gates and Hillman Computer Science building at Carnegie Mellon “is a terrific building for the way the outdoor and indoor spaces are shaped. It advances a really great dialogue on campus,” she says. She’s also a fan of Mellon Park.

Gates Hillman Complex at Carnegie Mellon designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects of Atlanta.

Chen offers high praise to “every project the Carnegie Library has done. They are a client that gets it. They understand that what a building looks like shape expectations and that shapes behavior. They are bright, transparent. You understand intuitively how to use it. It’s for you.”

And while she admits it might not be a popular choice among architects, Chen likes PPG Place which reinterprets the Gothic cathedral with glass. “When the light hits it right, there’s something weirdly picturesque about it. And it creates strong public space. Even the Wintergarden. But it doesn’t work as well as an interior office environment.”

Great buildings, designed by diverse talent

Alicia Volcy, a project designer at IKM, mentions the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre on Liberty Avenue in the Strip District, another Design Award winner. “That was done in such an elegant way that you can’t really tell that that was an addition,” she says.

The Midwife Center in Lawrenceville, a Rothschild Doyno project, is also an example of good architecture, says Volcy.

“It means a lot the way they put it together,” she says. “They brought some color to that side of the street and made that existing building something more than this old piece of architecture.”

The Midwife Center expansion. Photo courtesy of TMC

For Volcy, vice president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, raising the bar on architecture is also a matter of diversifying the profession.

“I really think that what’s lacking in architecture, especially in Pittsburgh, is innovation and I think it’s because this city really lacks diversity when it comes to designers,” she says. “So many studies show that you can’t really have innovation without diversity and the numbers here are so vastly low.”

“I got here through a program at Carnegie Mellon called UDream, with a mission to diversify the design profession,” she says. But that program no longer exists. “So my question is, what’s next?”

She cites East Liberty and asks, “Who was included when these decisions are being made? We have an opportunity to really change that. We could be at the forefront if we simply dedicated the time to figure it out.”

To make that happen, people have to be open to thinking about diversity. “A lot of architects are looking for talent,” Volcy says. But “I don’t think a lot of firms are making effort to think about diversity.”