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.

Italian Colors

Two rowhouses in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh: one green, one red

Green house, red house, white snow, Bloomfield

Even the most casual student of the classics will recognize the names of great Italian painters. Botticelli, Caravaggio, Verrocchio–the list goes on and on.  Their descendants made their way in droves to Pittsburgh, settling largely in Larimer, Bloomfield, South Oakland, and other parts of the city.  And they continued to paint.

The medium of choice is still oils (albeit exterior enamel) and they’ve simplified their color palette to the trinity of green, white, and red.  Boldly eschewing the staid canvas and gallery presentation, these artists work large and for the world to see: on cement walls and park benches, street lights and entire houses.

Garage wall in Italian red, green, and white

Garage (detail), Uptown

It’s curious to me that while Pittsburgh’s great expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was famously from eastern and southern European immigrants, it seems that only the Italians felt the need to reproduce the flag over and over again.  Why don’t we see crude renderings of the white eagle on garages in Polish Hill and Lawrenceville?  Why no black, red, and gold telephone poles in Deutschtown?  We’ve got (people who identify as) Croats and Slovaks out the yin yang.  Who’s representing?

Street light pole in Italian colors

Street light pole, Bloomfield

Flower pot with red and white flowers and statue of Jesus

Jesus Planter, Bloomfield

While only a fraction of the population of those other neighborhoods, the tiny neighborhood-within-a-neighborhood of Panther Hollow has possibly more Italian colored things per capita than anywhere else.  There’s a bi-lingual war memorial with the flags of The United States, Italy, and Pittsburgh, an Italian-colored park bench and picnic table, the flag rendered graffiti-style on a retaining wall, and one abbreviated stretch of picket fence.

Park bench and picnic table in Italian colors

Park bench, picnic table, Panther Hollow

It was there, at the very end of Panther Hollow, that we had the great fortune to run into lifetime resident, local historian, and maintainer of the terrific website, Carlino Giampolo. “Everyone should have a fence to hide their garbage,” Carlino told us as explanation for the curious freestanding set of tri-colored fence at the edge of his property, the last plot in the Hollow as the dead-end Boundary Street trickles into Schenley Park bicycle trail.

Retaining wall with Italian flag

Retaining wall, Panther Hollow

Carlino went on to tell us about growing up in Panther Hollow, when what is now Pitt’s lower parking lot was a ball field, community park, and cow pasture.  When there were as many as six different operating businesses in the Hollow (today there are none, nor any obvious former retail spaces).  He showed us where the hotel once stood in what is now his side yard, the community oven that would cook the neighborhood’s bread, and how self-sufficient the whole place once was (and not that long ago)–butchering their own animals, making cheese and butter from the small herd of cows they kept, etc.

Picket fence in Italian colors

“Everyone should have a fence to hide their garbage”, Carlino’s fence, Panther Hollow