Steel City Serenade by James Kezman

Architecturally, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania punches above its weight. For a mid-sized American city, it has a rich agglomeration of fascinating buildings, largely thanks to the city’s storied industrial past.

Architecturally, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania punches above its weight. For a mid-sized American city, it has a rich agglomeration of fascinating buildings, largely thanks to the city’s storied industrial past.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Pittsburgh steel was used to modernize the infrastructure of America — bridges, tunnels, skyscrapers, ports, factories, rail lines, dams, monuments, office buildings — the Steel City built America and generated a tremendous amount of wealth in the process. Some of that wealth was used to build wonderful buildings. Just in downtown Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle, an area of about 1.7 square kilometers, you can find excellent examples of architectural periods from 19th century Romanesque Revival through 1980s Post-Modernism and on to contemporary sustainable architecture.

Unfortunately, the steel industry also generated tremendous amounts of pollution — search for “pittsburgh street lights noon” to see some vivid examples of just how dirty the city was. A grimy patina coated the city for decades, hiding its architectural heritage.

After World War II, the city launched an environmental campaign, dubbed Renaissance I, that moved most heavy industry out of the city center, imposed air and water quality standards on the remaining industry and encouraged a spate of new construction. To the surprise of many, the Pittsburgh that emerged from the smoke and soot was beautiful.

Today’s city is two generations removed from the collapse of the steel industry and its architectural pedigree is on full display. The accumulated layers of different eras create fascinating blends of textures and geometries, especially when they interact with the right light.

I grew up not far from Pittsburgh. Trodding its streets and bridges as a teenager and young adult — always looking up — helped to cultivate my aesthetic sense and nurtured what has become a fascination with things that we build. I live far away from Pittsburgh now and last visited the city in 2017. The autumn sunshine was warm and clear, picking out flourishes and faded details in equal measure. This is my ode to Pittsburgh; a short serenade in black and white, shadow and steel; a thank you for everything that the city gave to me; a Steel City Serenade. [Official Website]

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