Schenley Plaza Review

I walked through the renovated Schenley Plaza on a warm day recently and made a mental note to blog about it. Then the note faded from my mind, only to reappear this morning along with Patricia Lowry's review.
But the city has missed the chance to right the long wrong wrought by the parking lot and honor the original vision of the plaza as the formal, symmetrical entrance to Schenley Park. There was, in Sasaki's first iteration of this asymmetrical design, some tribute paid to Beaux Art ideals: The pedestrian path was on axis with its terminal view of the Mary Schenley fountain. But soon the tent was introduced, interrupting that vista and becoming the focal point of the path and the plaza.

The original design was a link from the City Beautiful movement through Paris and Versailles to ancient Rome. Oakland was where the City Beautiful movement came to roost in Pittsburgh, and here was a chance to strengthen ties to the long tradition of Western design in the civic and cultural heart of our city. We chose not to do that.

Maybe it wasn't possible to do that and accommodate all the program called for. The classical ideals of the City Beautiful movement were always a difficult overlay on Pittsburgh's hilly terrain, with its limited flatlands. And formalism may seem a foreign dialect, and a dead language to some, in these casual times. The plaza and its tent, which provides shelter, shade and social space, certainly are honest expressions of today's values.

In aesthetic terms, you can't disagree. Functionally, though, I think that you have to credit the design. The new place is pretty welcoming, and Pittsburgh can use all of the welcoming public spaces that it can get. To visitors to Oakland, especially first-time visitors, the plaza is impressive, particularly as it effortlessly extends the grass that surrounds the Cathedral of Learning. Schenley Plaza doesn't belong to Pitt, but it symbolizes and manifests the idea that Pitt has a real campus. That has to be a good thing both for the university and for the city.

Kudos to the P-G, by the way, for continuing to showcase the writing of an architecture critic!


5 Responses to "Schenley Plaza Review"

Anonymous said... 10/18/2006 9:34 AM

I just wish there was a better name, maybe Library Park, as it connects both the Hillman and Carnegie libraries. Or it could be calles Liber Park, latin for both "free" and "books."

Jefferson said... 10/18/2006 10:11 AM

I can disagree, aesthetically. To me, impressive and monumental architecture devoid of social interaction is cold and bleak, and cold and bleakness are not aesthetic qualities I value. As I remember it, the original, symmetrical design did not recognize the importance of the Forbes Bigelow intersection as the principal pedestrian hub in the area (maybe because it was not, back then). I think that if the plaza had been designed that way, it would be another imposing-looking dead space, like the "skatepark" between Posvar Hall and Hillman. If the purpose of the renovation of the plaza was to create a welcoming public social space, I don't think the original design was well suited.

Of course, aesthetic judgements are ultimately a matter of personal taste. Formalism, adherence to tradition, and sympathy for an original designer's desires aren't aesthetic values at all. I for one enjoy Pitt's and Oakland's seeming lack of any "master plan" for development. It's a refreshing change from other college campuses' rigid insistance on a uniform architectural style that is often quite beautiful and pleasant for the first weeks or months, but becomes mindnumbingly mundane after that.

Mike Madison said... 10/18/2006 10:19 AM

Jefferson -- Welcome back to Pittsburgh.

To me, "Beaux Arts" (the core aesthetic behind Lowry's critique) doesn't signify "impressive and monumental." It's a philosophy of formal symmetry and harmony, sort an architectural rhetoric (using that word in its original sense), which is why it's meaningful to speak of Beaux Arts design for gardens as well as for buildings. I agree that in contemporary terms it's cold, but personally (again), I put that on the "functional" side of things rather than the "aesthetic" side of things. But lines are blurry. Thanks for the comment!

Jefferson said... 10/18/2006 12:53 PM

Hey Mike,

Thanks for the welcome.

Maybe I should have used the term "grand"? In any case, I don't believe that Beaux Arts is necessarily cold. But as I remember the original design for the plaza, it was meant to be a gateway to the park, but not necessarily a destination itself.

Would it have been possible to preserve the vision and ideals of the original designer _and_ make the plaza a warm, welcoming social destination, rather than just a (grand) thoroughfare? The goals seem incompatible, to me, especially if you want to make the design compatible with the fact that almost all pedestrian traffic through the plaza goes to or from the Forbes/Bigelow corner.

I should point out that I'm working from a 6-month-old memory of the original symmetrical design. If someone has a link to the original design, please post it. A quick search with Google came up with nothing.

Mark Rauterkus said... 10/18/2006 9:53 PM

I think that the park stinks. In my judgement, the re-do fails for me, my family and the community.

There are so many reasons why I dare not begin a rant here.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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