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Cool and Contemporary Pittsburgh Architecture

A new breed of local architects is livening up the way Pittsburghers live – lofts and light and green, green everywhere! Can contemporary, daring, idea-based architecture co-exist with traditional neighbors? As a matter of fact, it can.

It's six a.m., and Eric Fisher is sitting with his morning coffee, basking in the glow of the gentle morning sun, looking out on his roof garden, Pittsburgh's first residential green roof. "It's the experience of green," he says, "that I'm interested in as an architect."

By mid-day, the soft tones will be nearly blinding – striking greens, yellows, reds, purples – all on the roof of his Fisher House. "It really is a woodland garden," he gestures.

It's a garden that serves many masters. While aesthetically pleasing, it also blocks the sun (lowering cooling costs), absorbs storm water, and offers a green prospect to the 14 neighboring houses on his crowded corner of Shadyside's Aiken Avenue.
The word is Green these days, first cousin to Open Space, and if the emerging generation of residential architects has anything to say about it, Pittsburgh is the World Headquarters.

As AIA Pittsburgh Executive Director Anne Swager comments, "a lot of young architects like Eric Fisher are designing more contemporary architecture. As we grow as a city, our materials are changing, too, technology-based, greener."

As Fisher, principal of FISHER ARCHitecture and returned ex-patriot who left for Harvard, Los Angeles, and Berlin, says it's hard to tell what pleases him most, the house's open space or the plants with which he's surrounded it – around the perimeter, in window boxes and on the green roof.

Indeed, the band's all here from allium, sedum, honeysuckle and iris, to bamboo, thyme, weeping cherry, and a host of others. Then there's the idea of "bringing the outside into the indoors," he says. That openness, that greenness, adds Fisher, "is the inverse of the traditional Pittsburgh house. It also says that contemporary, daring, idea-based architecture can co-exist with traditional neighbors."

Defying Convention
Co-existence was Rob Pfaffmann's charge in East Liberty.  A Boston native who studied at Syracuse, Pfaffmann worked on Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute and the Heinz History Center, among others, and was chosen by East Liberty Development to design contextual-yet-creative in-fill housing in a sad, broken-winged neighborhood that was blighted, bulldozed, and struggling bravely to return.
Bringing a fresh perspective, he and his firm  Pfaffmann + Associates encountered the obvious – gaping holes in increasingly valuable real estate within walking distance to major shopping, universities, and medical centers and a quick bus or bike ride to town. But how to help the neighborhood sensibility and sensitively?

Working with mossArchitects, Ibacos, for energy technology, and S&A Homes, "we had to design houses that are contextual but also contemporary," Pfaffmann says, "modern, hip, stretching conventions, developing new standards."

His answer was to create a brace of designs, the Rectangular and the Courtyard, both green, energy-efficient, and cost-effective. With seven already built on North Euclid and Hays Streets, and nearly 100 more anticipated, "we're looking for sustainability," he says, "longevity. These houses aren't just going to be green today, but are going to be green tomorrow. And for the next 100 years."

With both designs hovering on either side of 2,000 square feet, the Courtyard is really two smaller houses connected by a courtyard, whereas the Rectangular has a two-story Great Room with triple windows. While the Courtyard "brings a sense of place for the family," the Rectangular features a great room flooded with natural light. For the Rectangular, he adds, "we also split the faηade into 1/3rd and 2/3rds, so that the mass of the house is broken up into the scale of the adjacent houses." By contrast, the Courtyard's "light explodes from within. It's really spectacular."

Designed in bold colors of greens and blues, Pfaffmand says "for narrow-lot houses you get a lot of bang for your buck. These may be in-fill cookies. But they're healthy cookies."

Lofty Ideas

When it comes to context, Paul Rosenblatt's Squirrel Hill Loft House looks any other 1,400-square-foot Douglas Street house, which is exactly how it began life. Arriving in 1988, the native New Yorker, and Yale-trained architect came to take a Carnegie Mellon teaching position, eventually creating his own firm called Springboard. Married to Amsterdam-native quilt artist Petra Fallaux and living in Squirrel Hill, they fell deeply in love with Pittsburgh.

By '95 they bought a house but yearned for Downtown's emerging lofts. They wanted the best of both worlds -- Downtown living with Squirrel Hill's tree-lined, walkable shopping district and coffee shops. "We had to figure out a way to get the space we needed," Rosenblatt says. After all, there was his treasured vinyl record collection, her studio, and of course a Living Room and Master Bedroom worthy of the names. The brilliant-yet-oh-so-simple solution: "I built a 2,700-square-foot loft and attached it to the house," Rosenblatt shrugs.

With its wood finishes, and towering views of his backyard greenery, the Loft House – column-free, all wood, with floor-to-ceiling windows -- "showed city dwellers that you could have a loft in the middle of the city," Rosenblatt smiles. "You can have your cake and eat it."

Killer Views
It's loft and light that also inform Mary Cerrone's two masterpieces, her own Hilltop House in Squirrel Hill, and her new Wickyards Town Homes, on Mt. Washington.

The West Virginia native and Virginia-trained architect moved here 17 years ago with her husband, architect Kevin Wagstaff. (Pittsburgh is halfway between her family and his, in eastern PA). Cerrone took a former lumber yard at Bigbee and Bailey Streets and planned six townhomes, three of which have been built. With a commanding view of the Monongahela River and the Point, her loft interiors, balconies, and bay windows are open and inviting. "There's tons of light," she says. "The idea was to take advantage of the view. I wanted to maximize the connection to the outdoors."

With two slightly different designs – one is 4,000 square feet, and little sister is 500 square feet less – open is it. "For a lot of people coming from small houses," she says, "or houses with a lot of rooms, there's a real appeal to open space. It can be liberating. Exhilarating. However, living in open space takes a certain amount of rigor," she cautions. "You can't have load and loads of stuff."

Cerrone ought to know. Her own much-awarded Hillside House, on Squirrel Hill's South Negley Avenue, features open space along with  nooks and crannies for her family's things. "The DNA of the house also has to accommodate a reasonable kitchen," she says, and at Wickyards she included two islands in each. "People love them," she says. "They're very functional, very social. Great gathering spaces. For houses to work, you always have to have a public/private balance."

Abby Mendelson's latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.

Photo captions: Eric and Mary Fisher, Rob Pfaffmann, Paul Rosenblatt, Mary Cerrone in Mt. Washington townhouse, Fishers on their green roof

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen 

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