A City Without A Symbol?

Could Pittsburgh use a monument to capture its identity? It's an idea that's fun to think about and compelling to explore. We asked seven local creatives to dream up a visual identity for the city, and here are their proposals.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower; Berlin has the Brandenburg Gate. Go Down Under and there’s an iconic Opera House in Sydney. Buildings and monuments have long been seen as ways to capture the quintessence of a city. America boasts many as well. Think: the Statue of Liberty in New York or the Seattle Space Needle, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge or the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (made with steel produced in Pittsburgh).

Speaking of Pittsburgh: Do we have something here that sums up our city in a big, bold and eye-catching way? Some say the stunning skyline. But, of course, that IS Pittsburgh. Perhaps the U.S. Steel Tower, the Cathedral of Learning or the fountain at the Point. And there are more. Maybe, though, we could use something new. At least it’s an idea that’s fun to consider.

 Inspired by the timeliness and momentum of our Pittsburgh 250 celebration in 2008, which marked the milestone of the founding of the city two-and-a-half centuries ago, we thought about such an icon – to mark the occasion and define us to ourselves and the world as the city moves toward the next 250 years. After all, the theme of Pittsburgh 250 was, “Imagine what you can do here.”

We asked several of the many talented and creative architects, designers and artists here to use their imaginations to conceive of a Symbol of Pittsburgh. In addition to submitting a visual image of his or her concept, we’ve also asked each contributor to provide a written description of the design as well as some biographical background.

The results are amazing – with ideas that range from a new life for an old landmark to an homage to Native Americans, from soaring additions to the cityscape to a new addition to our collection of inclines through which we can take it all in.

Of course, these designs are all virtual-reality. There are no plans at present to construct any of these dreamscapes. But who’s to say that one – or several – of these ideas could not be constructed in the future. Imagine!



Ron Desmett
Pittsburgh DNA

His stainless-steel sculpture takes its inspiration from the DNA double helix. With DNA being the building blocks of life, this work refers to the building blocks of our community, with our attachment to medicine, sports and culture.

This 40-foot bent-tube sculpture would have video monitors that are activated by the viewer using a cell phone to call up real-time as well as archived images of events in the city. This could be used as a source for people wanting to know what is going on in the region from sports to cultural events. The work could also be a gathering point for the community to experience an event that is sold out or closed to the public (such as a sold-out Pirates World Series Game – just kidding!).

The piece could be located at the entry to the Point and be seen upon exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnels.

Ron Desmett received a bachelor-of-science degree from the University of Akron and came to Pittsburgh in 1977 to get a master’s of fine arts from Carnegie Mellon University and never left. He has never had a real job since leaving undergraduate school, though he has been a teacher, professional potter, home and studio builder and now full-time glass artist and sculptor. Ron founded the Pittsburgh Glass Center (with his wife, Kathleen Mulcahy) with a credit card and help from the funding community. His work has recently been collected by the Carnegie Museum as well as the Smithsonian Museum. Ron says, “Every year I think I will become a real Pittsburgher, then my beloved Browns come to town.”



Shashi D. Patel
The Golden Triangle

Situated at the confluence of the city’s three rivers at Point State Park, The Golden Triangle will serve as a cultural beacon for Pittsburghers, providing them with a symbol of the city’s heritage and its spirit of progress.

With a height of 600 feet and a base of more than 300 feet, this monument will be comparable to other national monuments in its size and grandeur. The conceptual design includes a tri-legged structure supporting an observation deck with a golden pyramidal cap. Its three legs, which will frame the original footprint of Fort Duquesne, will diminish in size as it ascends to its observation deck. This open structure will allow for views of the city skyline and encourage public recreation. The glass floor of the observation deck will allow for views of the city and its surrounds.

The Golden Triangle’s structural elements will be shaped as giant steel columns to pay tribute to the city’s world-renowned steel industry. The gradual merging of these elements represents the city’s ethnic solidarity. The legs of the structure symbolize essential features of the city, including its three rivers; its orientation around education, industry and finance; and its leadership in the tri-state region. The legs will also embody the natural elements of wind, water and fire as they are situated on Earth and rise to space. The Golden Triangle’s structural cladding represents the area’s major industries: steel, aluminum and glass. The three arches at the base will invoke Pittsburgh’s famous bridges. The reflective golden glass on the pyramidal cap represents the city’s Golden Triangle and its leadership in high-tech enterprises. The external “bug” elevators will echo the city’s inclines. An antenna mounted at the top of The Golden Triangle will serve as a tribute to the city’s first radio broadcast.

Holographic images projected in between the legs of the monument will pay homage to historic Pittsburgh icons, including its industry laborers, veterans and sports professionals.

Shashi D. Patel, AIA, is the owner of Global Design Associates LLC, Architects and Planners, located in Regent Square. He is a native of Kenya and is of Indian ethnicity. After high school in Kenya, he graduated from the School of Architecture in Ahmadabad, India, and attended graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University. As an architect in Kenya, Shashi developed several design concepts for safari lodges in game reserves of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Through a special assignment, he researched the lifestyle, living habits and social customs of East African tribes. He has designed and worked on a number of global projects. Among his notable local commissions are Hindu temples, including the Hindu Jain Temple in Monroeville and Sri Venkateswara Temple in Penn Hills. He has received a number of awards during his 38-year career and belongs to a variety of professional and service organizations. Shashi is the past president of Swissvale Rotary Club and a Paul Harris Fellow of Rotary International.

William Kolano
The Pittsburgh Rise

Throughout history, there has been a desire for man to look down on the creation of his built accomplishments. The Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, St. Louis Arch and London Eye are not only symbols of their cities, they also provide superb vantage points for residents and visitors to experience the magnificent cities below.

The Pittsburgh Rise would be the world’s tallest incline. It would be located near the West End Bridge to provide the quintessential view of Pittsburgh’s iconic three rivers. Residents and visitors would see the unique topography, understand why the land was worth fighting for historically and experience the continual evolution of a living, breathing city.

With a striking design that evokes work by visionary architect and designer Santiago Calatrava, the structure would ascend along its mountain anchor and soar to a level just below the clouds. Cable cars would be re-invented as climate-controlled pods. The components would be fabricated of local specialty steel, wire and glass. The curved incline form would be influenced by the curves of our bridges and convention center.

Pittsburgh’s hilly terrain creates a continuous succession of views that are revealed around each corner. Just as one is surprised by the view exiting the Fort Pitt Tunnels, passengers on The Rise would begin the journey behind Mount Washington and experience the spectacular view when rising above the crest of the hill.

No man-made symbol can surpass Pittsburgh’s three rivers as an icon. Riverlife and its allies are strengthening not only the physical environment here, but also the social connection to the life-giving water. The Rise will give context to Pittsburgh’s history and serve as an observation vehicle to its future.

William Kolano was born in Pittsburgh and started his career with a degree in architecture from Carnegie Mellon University. His firm, Kolano Design, specializes in brandscaping, adapting corporate images to the built environment. Bill has worked with many of Pittsburgh’s top corporations to make them a part of city skylines and contributed to the master plans of many local environmental organizations. He is a member of the city’s Civic Design Advisory Panel.

John A. Martine
Pittsburgh 250 Tower

Throughout history, civilizations have erected monuments to commemorate events. In ancient times, these monuments were often in the form of figural statues, columns or even entire building complexes. In the past few centuries, some of these forms were re-interpreted, with examples being the obelisk design of the Washington Monument in our nation’s capital, and the stellar, iconic, monumental figural statue, the Statue of Liberty. Newer forms are led by an engineering marvel, the Eiffel Tower. In the 20th century, St. Louis erected the Jefferson Memorial Arch to celebrate Lewis and Clark’s exploration, signifying St. Louis as the “Gateway to the West,” an honor that could rightfully be said to belong to Pittsburgh.

Prominently sited on the West End Overlook, the Pittsburgh 250Tower would provide a venue that would not only draw visitors to one of the greatest views in the country, but also inspire them to consider history – Pittsburgh history. There are numerous inspirations for the Pittsburgh 250Tower. The first, Trajan’s Column in Rome, graphically weaves the story of Trajan’s military victories. The second inspiration is the Valhalla complex in Germany, a hall of fame of notable citizenry. The last is the Vrtba Garden, a Baroque garden in Prague that takes advantage of a hillside, presenting a unique terraced-garden experience.

The tower’s design uses elements from these gems to relay the history of our city, through its people. Like Trajan’s Column, we have taken the basic Doric column form and wrapped a historical narrative around it. As with the original, there is a viewing platform at the top. In following the influence of the Valhalla complex, we honor multiple persons – 250 of them – some famous and some not, all of whom have left their mark on Pittsburgh. And like the Vrtba Garden in Prague, we have incorporated terraced gardens at the base of the tower. The 250Tower complex would incorporate a visitor’s center, interactive displays, a restaurant and a gift shop. Its height would be 125 feet from the base to the viewing platform. Materials for the tower would incorporate classic Pittsburgh building materials, steel, glass and aluminum, tangible evidence of the history of the city itself.

Although a native Pittsburgher, John A. Martine, AIA, never fully appreciated the city until he’d spent time away from it. Having finished architecture studies at Notre Dame, he completed a three-year U.S. Army stint abroad in his 20s, followed by three less-regimented years in Los Angeles, making art and exhibiting his work. He had escaped this city, curious about the larger world beyond, and had assumed that his return in 1969 would be a temporary one. But, re-enchanted with his home, he opened a design firm in 1973, becoming ensconced shortly thereafter in the heart of the South Side. John’s interest in history meshed well with the city’s architecture, and that pairing became the initial basis of his practice. He has since been fortunate to see his work receive design awards from AIA Pittsburgh, AIA Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission and others. He is a founding principal of Strada, a multidisciplinary design firm established in 2000.

Robert S. Pfaffmann
A Civic ReNEWal

The REUSE of the Civic (Mellon) Arena is my proposal for Pittsburgh’s symbol. Let’s imagine an extreme makeover that captures its original 1950s hipness and gives it a new meaning and new purpose.

First a little history: Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Pittsburgh was known for its industrial innovation. This often came at a cost in terms of destruction of our environment. In 1958, as part of the 200th anniversary of Pittsburgh, ground was broken for this icon of modern design and engineering. It was a symbol of our recovery with its innovative, movable domed roof showing off the clean air and skyline.

The Arena was designed as part of a visionary but misguided “Cultural Acropolis” akin to New York’s Lincoln Center, edged by then-trendy modern high-rise residential towers offering clean new housing with the promise of light, space and views. Of course, there is another side to the story: the failure of urban renewal that still haunts residents of the Hill District today.

The Vision: Keys to our future competitiveness will be about conservation, recycling and rebuilding green. So let’s imagine that the stainless-steel-clad Igloo could become a unique destination for visitors to learn of our innovative ways. It could become our answer to Chicago’s Millennium Park.

In order to visualize this transformation, imagine that we would remove most of the interior seating “bowl” and all of the nonstructural stuff of the old arena. Now, stripped to its structural elegance, we would have the ability to build new uses within it (imagine a hermit crab!) and still have room for the coolest park around with a roof that opens in good weather and closes in bad!

Imagine this circular park with lush landscape in summer and the recycled Pittsburgh Penguins’ rink in winter. It could have a small amphitheater next to the rink for jazz, Cirque du Soleil, Squonk Opera – all complementing the business for the new Arena across the street. Imagine a hip, job-creating “destination hotel,” retail, restaurants and a surrounding residential neighborhood with views every bit as dramatic as those from Mount Washington. A key feature would be a reconnected Wiley Avenue connecting downtown to the Hill once again.

This would not be an isolated place as it is today, but a truly “civic” space fully integrated with surrounding new development as a symbol befitting Pittsburgh’s rebirth as a place of innovation and a monument to remember Pittsburgh 250th-birthday observance.

To learn more about this proposal, look up “Reuse the Igloo” on Facebook groups, and to participate in the upcoming master planning process for the Lower Hill, go to hillhouse.org/communityevents.php.

Robert S. Pfaffmann, AIA, is an architect and planner who is principal of Pfaffmann + Associates. He is known for a wide range of award-winning architecture and urban-design projects in Pittsburgh. His firm’s work in Pittsburgh follows, by 100 years, the work of his great-great-grandfather Daniel Burnham, who was architect of many iconic structures, including the Frick Building and Pennsylvania Station.

Prominent award-winning projects include Meadowcroft Rockshelter, Homewood and Hill District branches of Carnegie Library and Alcoa’s Business Service Center. Green design projects include the Carnegie Mellon Café, Powdermill Nature Reserve and the recently completed East Liberty “Prototype Houses.” Rob is currently working on reuse plans for the Garden Theater on the North Side.



Kathleen Mulcahy
Pittsburgh’s Canis Major

I remember starting to laugh when I saw the Jeff Koons sculpture “Puppy” in front of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. It seemed so irreverent and joyous at the same time, standing guard, well not only guard but for as large as it was, to tower over what was itself an impressive building. The two clashed and seemed to have settled in a truce, a pact of friendship, a titanium rose and a West Highland terrier.

I wanted to create a Pittsburgh version of an iconic form to greet us as we enter the city from the bridge and make our way downtown. I thought we needed a symbol right there – in the traffic island in front of Fifth Avenue Place – that is the entry into past, present and future Pittsburgh.

I played with the idea of steel shapes like an anvil, and the anvil tossed around until it abstracted into a tall, folded form with curving contours, essentially a classic elegant shape. I wanted to interrupt the polished metal surface with a kind of constellation of orbs – be they atoms, stars or planets.

Pittsburgh’s Canis Major is named for the larger dog form suggested by the constellation of stars that follows the constellation of Orion the Hunter. At 120 feet high and 40 feet wide, it would be created from polished stainless steel and feature a vertical 90-degree angle, a flat top and a soft curve in on the sides. Cascading into an orbit from the top are forms that are pearl-like, planetary and bubbling forth onto the ground and perhaps made of glass. Because of the bright mirrored surface, there is an endless space, reflecting the galaxy within the heart of the city.

And now that I think of it, this abstract symbol of Pittsburgh is a kind of a Space Age terrier, standing ready, proud, devoted, opening to the possibility of endless potential, a gathering place for the many orbits intertwined in the vibrant city of Pittsburgh.

Kathleen Mulcahy is an independent professional artist living and working in Oakdale, where she shares several studios with her husband, Ron Desmett, for hot glass and mixed media. She graduated from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University with a master’s of fine arts. Interested in all materials, inside and out, she studied glass science, refractories, glass composition, metals and woodworking. Over the years, she has taught at Bowling Green State University and Carnegie Mellon University, where she met Ron and left there to make her work full-time on their 8-acre tract. Her work has won numerous awards, including an NEA, PCA, Fulbright, Pittsburgh’s Creative Achievement Award and 1992 Artist of the Year, and is represented in collections throughout the United States. In 2001 with the help of many dedicated individuals, companies and foundations in Pittsburgh, Kathleen and Ron fulfilled a 10-year goal of launching the Pittsburgh Glass Center to make a special place for glass arts in Pittsburgh.

Mimi Jong
The River Bird

The concept of this project is to create a transparent cultural nexus, facilitating a space from which Pittsburgh cultural icons may arise. A barge (195 by 50 feet) with a stage named The River Bird is to celebrate our rivers, connecting with our past to launch a future that is sustainable and enlightening. The shape of the roof conjures up a soaring bird and also depicts a Native American symbol for the river. In most Native American mythology, birds symbolize knowledge, transformation and healing – bearers of magic. Thus, The River Bird is to honor the people who lived here before it was named Pittsburgh.

The River Bird is a design-in-progress, with key professionals who would assist in its realization. The River Bird will serve as an example of sustainability, utilizing natural resources to operate in carbon-neutral fashion. A collaboration with artists and engineers will enable the architect to integrate visually attractive and highly functional technology into the design. The structure will bear very tall masts (retractable to pass under bridges) with a lightweight, kinetic sculpture visible from a great distance, possibly with attention-calling, color-changing devices that indicate weather. The ever-changing sculpture will be lit by LED lighting. Incorporation of wind energy will be considered.

Engineers also will work with an artist and the architect to design feather-shaped photovoltaic panels on the curving roof. LED lighting will bring the feathers and The River Bird to life. The sculptural back wall of the stage not only will illustrate Pittsburgh’s 250 years of history in 3D, it also will show pre-European local history. The stage floor will be partially constructed by translucent material glowing in a geometric pattern, back-lit from below. The architect and an artist will design the transparent side enclosures of the stage to be wind- and solar-interactive. Additional elements necessary for proper functioning will be developed by the architect collaborating with exhibition, theater and acoustic specialists.

My visions for The River Bird are:

1. To inspire cultivation of our waterfront, turning idle industrial landscape into recreation and cultural satellites, giving the waterfront back to the neighborhoods.

2. To aspire to converging ideas by using the stage for all forms of performing arts, exhibitions and discussion forums. It’s hoped this encouragement to interaction will inspire, cultivate and nurture creativity.

3. To be a courageous ambassador of our city, sailing the rivers and soaring into the sky, sharing our visions with our nation and the world.

Mimi Jong, AIA, is a composite of many cultures. Born as ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, she studied architecture and urban planning at Stuttgart University in Germany and traveled extensively, absorbing new cultural experiences. She brought all these influences to the United States, where she continues to explore diverse cultural expression. Her mediums are through architecture, music, painting, poetry, calligraphy, Zen practice, feng shui, and most important, through people and friendship.

As an architect, her first assignment in Pittsburgh while employed by Astorino was the placement design of the Mayor Richard Caliguiri statue at the City-County Building. In 1997, Mimi founded MLJ Architects, specializing in small projects, such as WAX Jewelry Design Studio in Shadyside.

As a musician, she often performs with folk, classical and jazz artists on her ancient Chinese erhu. With the mission “Weaving Cross-cultural Experience,” she also produces concerts, inviting professional performing artists to Pittsburgh.


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