Humble Pei: A Pi Day Salute to I.M. Pei’s City View Tower

City View (originally Washington Plaza Apartments) designed by I.M. Pei, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden hour on the lower Hill: City View (neé Washington Plaza) Apartments, Centre Ave.

It must have felt like a dream. At the crest of Centre Avenue, mere blocks above the hubbub of downtown Pittsburgh and the still-smoldering remains of the lower Hill, twenty-four stories of clean, sharp concrete and grid-patterned windows shot from of the earth like a dramatic rock formation or the liftoff armature of a rocket ship, just launched into space.

City View (originally branded Washington Plaza) wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first large-scale, post-war modernist building–there are a handful of big office towers built downtown in the 1950s that meet that description–but its position standing alone, at the top of its hill and with eyes cast out in all directions, had to have felt like something completely different. The future–whether Pittsburgh really wanted it or not–was here right now.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, southeast side

This speculative journalist has driven and/or biked past the City View towers a hundred times and seen its cold concrete form from every direction imaginable–it’s hard to miss if you’re anywhere nearby. But I’ll be honest here, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have just considered it the anonymous big ugly apartment building uphill from the hockey arena.

signage for City View Apartments featuring simplified graphic version of the building's shape

City View Apartments signage with abstracted/graphically-simplified version of the building’s design

And thenI.M. Pei died.

Pei, if you’re not a design geek or a regular crossword-puzzle-doer, is one of the giants of modern architecture who planned marquee office towers and airline terminals, art museums and corporate headquarters all over the planet. In his long career–he was 102 when he passed last year and worked most of those decades–Pei designed projects from Beijing to Bloomington, Doha to Denver, Paris to … well, you guessed it.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

Old vs. … not quite so old. City View Apartments, seen from Fifth Ave.

The Washington Plaza Apartments arrived in 1964 at the height of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts, the tail end of the razing of the lower Hill District,[1] and just a few years before the real boom in downtown glass-and-steel skyscrapers would hit. With its climate-controlled interiors and uninterrupted 360-degree views, moving from a cramped city row house into a brand new Washington Plaza apartment, mere steps from downtown, must have satisfied many a jet-age urban fantasy.

On this come-for-the-pun, stay-for-the-dessert Pi/Pie Day, we thought we’d add Pei Day to the ramshackle who’s-driving? feel of the occasion. (Just know that the name is actually pronounced PAY.[2]) In this version of the “holiday” we celebrate the master architect’s sole Pittsburgh project and give ourselves the opportunity to really take a good long look at the building, from a bunch of angles across different seasons, and see if its tan concrete and wall-of-windows would whisper its secrets of the modern age to us.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, north face

And … I guess it worked out that way. Perhaps it was because we’re so easily swayed by star power or maybe it was just taking the time to actually look at the place–to set aside a bunch of prejudices and commune with Pei’s big apartment building at street level[3]. Either way, we found that enough time spent walking around the place, looking up, picture-taking, and photo-editing made all that concrete warm up, wave back to us, and glow against several different impossibly-blue skies.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, east face

Look: there are no plans for us to leave our decidedly old-world row house with its boxy quarters and interior windows looking straight out on the neighbor’s brick wall. But there are times–up on the ladder, re-patching cracks in the same 140-year-old horsehair plaster one “fixed” not that long ago–that the mind wanders to an easier, simpler, more modern existence–big on sunlight and small on crumbling sandstone foundation dust. Yesterday’s modernists may have really had something there, and that’s how we ended up here, at Pei Day.


[1] The story of the destruction of the Lower Hill and forced displacement of its (largely black) resident/business community in the name of “urban renewal” is an extremely important one, but not the subject of this piece.
[2] The temptation to call this piece Pei Day Loans or Pei The Man or some such foolishness was strong, but for everyone (like me) who previously thought the name was pronounced PIE, that just wouldn’t make sense.
[3] The Orbit was escorted from City View’s lobby by security before we could either get a good look at the interior or any photographs. We’re not holding a grudge.

Dying To Get In: The Mid-Century Mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park

Penn Lincoln Memorial Park mausoleum and chapel, c. 1960, North Huntingdon

The unusual roofline, viewed from either end, has the perfect semi-circular curves of a series of long sheets of paper, each arched gracefully to bend back in on itself. Across the front of the big building are evenly-spaced openings echoing the same design motif. The big spaces are filled with aluminum grids and stained glass windows that echo the fantastically frenetic line drawings of Ben Shahn or Paul Klee.

In fact, one can imagine the entire structure modeled in miniature, constructed from simple cardboard tubes, thick paper stock, and colored gels. You can almost see the architects–’50s beatnik-meets-big city corporate; all cigarette ash, turtlenecks, and horn rims–as they talk the wary customer through an unexpected design laid out before them in the firm’s big conference room.

Penn Lincoln Memorial Park mausoleum and chapel, North Huntingdon, PA

Appearing like a retro-futuristic science-fiction film set, the mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park rests atop a gentle hill along Route 30, east of Pittsburgh. Driving by–one would have no good reason to walk or bicycle this stretch of highway–it may not even be obvious what you’re seeing as the big building flashes past the driver’s side window at 45 MPH.

An industrial R&D laboratory? Experimental school? A sneaker preacher’s mega-church? Heck, maybe even some crackpot millionaire’s attempt at an ex-urban Utopia. Any of these seem as plausible as something this designy winding up as an “above-ground burial” for Westmoreland County’s deceased moderne.

CMS East, Inc., the parent company that owns Penn Lincoln Memorial Park, along with 22 other cemeteries across five states, declined to provide The Orbit with any information on the architect who designed the mausoleum or any history of the design. CMS didn’t even respond to our request so it’s safe to say we do not recommend having any organization this rude turn your lifeless body to cinder!

The Google Machine offers no more information, so we’re left to wonder and speculate.

chapel interior

And that’s a shame. Not the wonder part, mind you, but the complete lack of recognition this remarkable construction seems to have received.

I’m no architect, but the artful curved concrete pours, the clean lines with no square corners, and the New Age yoga camp-meets-abandoned spaceport atmosphere all feel like ample source material for some academic’s Ph.D. thesis or a full-color spread in a glossy design magazine. At the very minimum, it’s worth pulling over to take a walk around the next time you’re headed east, toward Jeannette or Greensburg.

Most of metro Pittsburgh was constructed in a relatively short period of the city’s great industrial build-up–say, from the 1880s to the start of the Great Depression. So the prevailing design heritage here is curlicued Victorian filigree and blunt worker efficiency. The modernism of mid-century American design–so prevalent in breezy West Coast cities and Sun Belt oases–largely passed us by.

There are some notable exceptions, of course–Gateway Center’s gleaming aluminum cladding, Pitt’s brutalist expansions throughout Oakland, and (sigh) the old Civic Arena’s extraterrestrial colony come to mind.

But the lovely mausoleum at Penn Lincoln Memorial Park reminds us that the brilliant ambition of post-war America extended everywhere–to gasoline stations and dry cleaners, ice cream stands and car dealerships. It even came out here, to the distant suburbs of Pittsburgh, as a place one might entomb their loved-ones forever … in the future.

“above-ground burial” plots


Getting there: Penn Lincoln Memorial Park is on Rt. 30, half way between East McKeesport and North Huntingdon. It’s about a half hour’s drive from downtown Pittsburgh.