In Arthur Lubetz’s Studio, the Moment for Architecture is Now
If you drive out of Downtown Pittsburgh on Bigelow Boulevard, you speed around between the Strip and the Hill before descending along Craig Street, as if City Beautiful Oakland were a pool you slowly dip back into after flying around on the automobile-era roadway.
The Front Studio office at 357 North Craig Street is one of the first things you see as you cruise through the Queene Anne rowhouses, toward the apartment buildings and eventually the churches and cultural institutions.
The building itself seems to know that you have gone from fast to slow, and you’re in transition. The salmon colored slab wall and oversized square window are like a billboard, as an architecture magazine once pointed out, to be seen at a large scale, maybe quickly.
But the building is detailed enough to invite a closer, more ruminative inspection. Layered and nuanced for people walking by, who could be inclined to stop and inventory the overlapping materials of the façade, the varieties of glass and glass block. This building is a moment as much as a location. That time walking by when you realized it was no ordinary structure and you wanted a closer look.
Though Arthur Lubetz has been in practice since 1967, this building came to completion around 1985. You could hardly know by looking at it, but it used to be a garage of indeterminate origin, cheaply constructed, with ramshackle additions and haphazard repairs over the years.
But the firm was completing some large projects in those years, and the time seemed ripe to move into larger quarters. By the great dream of modern architecture, the garage was to be completely transformed.
And you can see the moment when Lubetz decided to use color. An early scheme for 357 North Craig has it clad in a completely white skin—a timeless, transformational uniform of the modern. But the completed scheme is salmon and teal.
“Red paint,” or in this case, salmon, “costs the same as beige,” Lubetz famously opines.
Those who call this building postmodern are missing the point. It’s not a monument to the ’80s, it’s a monument to the possibility for thoughtful architecture to be perpetually fresh.
Any doubts are silenced by a visit inside.
Part of it is that the salmon walls continue, with an off-scale grid of small windows, many of which are display spaces for Lubetz’s many pieces of Czech glass–just one of has many inspirations for concept, though not necessarily form. The color that welcomed you outside now surrounds you. There is an open warehouse sensation within the double-height space, with drafting (or computer) tables lined up, separated only by a few free-standing truncated walls. There is also a building within the building to contain sequences of more private spaces for meetings below, and living above.
The studio space is also punctuated with models (though many of these have an extended away game at the Heinz Architectural Center). These may be in a polished state of finish, or equally likely, they are hot-glued cardboard that was rushed together as a three-dimensional sketch, only a mile-marker on the way to a completed building.
Of course, computer design, across a number of software platforms, is now a staple of the Front Studio architectural process. But the back and forth provides a healthy cross-fertilization between the timeless and the timely. (In the exhibition in the museum’s Heinz Architectural Center, projects for the Glass Lofts and Squirrel Hill Branch of the Carnegie Library show both digital and analog design processes).
For example, Lubetz has been working with irregularly faceted skins for more than a decade. An unrealized project for a medical office building has an angular glass element at the corner of a more conventional brick building. The project did not reach construction, but the idea has achieved new life in his “disco cave” installation at the museum’s Heinz Architectural Center.
His work has the recurring tendency to cross years. His Ellsworth Avenue buildings, from the 1980s and early 2000s respectively, both show architecture as an enterprise that seems to be acted upon by external physical forces, emphasizing action and engaging the human body. Both have stair towers at the center of the action. Yet they are completely different. Copper versus stucco, one breaks while the other peels.
Through 50 years of practice, Lubetz never gives the sense that the moment for architecture was in the 1980s, or even the 2000s.
Judging by the completed work and the intense energy of current practice, we realize that the moment for architecture is always now.
Studio Visit is an ongoing series that offers a candid look at the workspaces and art practices of the artists who live and work in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.
Action, Ideas, Architecture: Arthur Lubetz/Front Studio is on view in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art from March 11 to May 22, 2017.