The art of Plan B Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002

I visited an office in the Strip District last month, an old warehouse that is being converted into office and loft space. The developers have opted to retain many of the structural and architectural features of the building, such as the exposed brick and wooden beams.

To me, it’s a Plan B approach to development that has become, in recent years, as familiar and natural to the region as rivers and bridges. Instead of a Plan A approach that we often equate with big-time development — razing buildings and replacing them with entirely new structures — developers in some cases are retaining the original character of old buildings and adapting them for modern uses.

Not that new development isn’t desirable or necessary. There is a massive redevelopment project under way on the south bank of the Monongahela River in Homestead where a huge steel mill once stood. The influx of new blood, while it will undoubtedly displace some existing enterprises, seems to be having the effect of polishing up the old business district on and around East Eighth Avenue.

While it takes a considerable degree of creativity to turn a dank warehouse into an attractive and functional office, store or retail center, the result is worth it. Tearing down a building and putting up a new one in its place is essentially a technical exercise. Refurbishing a building is a more creative exercise, one that brings out the artist in everyone involved.

Not every old building deserves to be preserved, but it makes sense to do so when it’s possible. It retains a sense of familiarity and a link to the past while making use of existing commercial stock. It’s environmentally responsible and, judging from its popularity, it must be cost-effective as well.

This is why I like the creative Plan B approach that’s emerging for the Fifth and Forbes corridor. The city’s main retail district as it exists is no showplace. Most of the buildings are unattractive, not because they’re old, but because they’re run down or they bear the bruises of renovations intended to conceal their age, not accentuate their original design features.

Fifth and Forbes could use a lot of fixing up to make it both more appealing and functional, but people are doing business there, despite considerable challenges. With a little help, they could do much better.

Art is really about rewriting the rules, bending and twisting the conventions and coming up with new answers — and, at times, new questions. Keeping any medium vibrant and alive is a matter of doing two seemingly contradictory things: retaining reverence for tradition and the accomplishments of past artists, while at the same time being willing to bend and break the rules so that the form can progress.

In Pittsburgh, we’re becoming quite proficient at the art of Plan B. At times, we appear to be trying to do things that contradict one another. We want to be a global player while retaining our distinctive small-town character. We want to protect our environment without stifling development. We want to preserve the past even as we know we must plunge fearlessly into the future.

Yet our best efforts seem to be those that emerge out of our desire to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable.

Like an enduring melody or a great painting, an old building can be a pleasure to experience and preserve. When a thoughtful, sensitive and daring artist gives it a new treatment, we are able to hold onto the familiar while embracing the innovative.

If we keep our past in mind while not allowing ourselves to stay stuck in it, we’ll be able to do both. When he’s not prowling through old buildings — some of them inhabited —

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) serves as SBN’s associate editor.