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COR-TEN steel

Artwork Type

Architecture



U.S. Steel Building

1971


Harrison, Abramovitz & Abbe, Architects



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Photo
Commissioning Entity U.S. Steel Corporation

Pittsburgh’s tallest, most massive skyscraper is a multifaceted paradox of elegance and clumsiness, success and failure. At its completion in 1970, the U.S. Steel Building it seemed like a monument to the triumphs of the steel industry. In a city full of corporate headquarters such as Gulf, Westinghouse, Alcoa, and Koppers, U.S. Steel would be the largest in town, indeed the tallest building between New York and Chicago. Harrison & Abramovitz, the suitably corporate New York firm who had already produced the nearby Alcoa building in distinctive and emblematic aluminum cladding, would design both skin and exterior structure here in Cor-Ten steel. The material’s self-sealing iron oxide surface was a 1960s architectural fashion so desirable that the exterior columns are actually filled with liquid as a fire suppression measure so they could be exposed rather than covered.

Otherwise, the building’s modified triangular plan is reference to the Golden Triangle that is more abstract than graceful, and it is exacerbated by a street level plaza that does not connect fluidly with the surrounding city, though redesigned freeway exits were no help.

To make matters worse, the steel giant reached completion at the dawn of the steel industry’s collapse, making rust seem like exactly the wrong quality of steel to monumentalize. It didn’t help that the Cor-Ten steel would flake off tiny bits of iron oxide in the rain–ears of rust for a dead industry. As the next generation of skyscrapers brought color, ornament, distinctive profiles, and well-planned plazas back to the Pittsburgh architecture, U.S. Steel seemed overbearing and diffident by comparison.

But substantive architecture can withstand vicissitudes of taste. The building’s soaring lobby, which maintains much of its restrained detailing in ample glass and exposed structure, seems admirable in era when mid-century modernism has renewed popularity. Likewise, an ongoing campaign to improve the building’s energy efficiency suggests that it can have continuing relevance in today’s ecological concerns.

What it doesn’t need is a stylistic makeover. A current proposal to add recreational functions to the top of the structure is roundly ill-conceived. It would be better for the healthcare giant that occupies most of the building to remove their terrible logo from the top.

Operational changes to make it work as office space are understandable. But the architecture of the building should remain at its evocative 1970s best. Let new buildings elsewhere try to portray their own historical moment as compellingly as the U.S. Steel Building does.

By Charles L. Rosenblum, Ph. D. 

Harrison, Abramovitz & Abbe was an iteration of architecture firm Harrison & Abramovitz, which was active between 1941 and 1976. The New York City based firm was a partnership between Wallace Harrison (1895-1981) and Max Abramovitz (1908-2004). Harrison worked as Nelson Rockefeller's architecture advisor during Rockefeller's tenure as govenor of New York. He oversaw notable projects like the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts. Abramovitz designed Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center.