|Commissioning Entity||Alcoa Corporation|
|Owner||City of Pittsburgh|
Pittsburgh’s Alcoa Corporation asked New York architects Harrison and Abramovitz to design a new headquarters building for the company in Manhattan; but Richard King Mellon persuaded Alcoa to remain in Pittsburgh. Subsequently the firm designed two corporate skyscrapers for downtown Pittsburgh almost simultaneously—one for Alcoa (1952) and one for Mellon Bank and U.S. Steel (1953). In an act of urban vision and an exercise of corporate power, the Alcoa and Mellon/U.S. Steel skyscrapers were realized in conjunction with a parking garage topped by a public plaza that replaced and occupied the entire city block that lay between them. The new skyscrapers and the plaza were designed with reference to one another, sharing a modern architectural vocabulary, contemporary materials, and cool colors. Mellon Square, funded by Mellon family foundations, provides full-height views of both towers, and in turn, enhances views from the towers, adding value to corporate investments.
Alcoa hoped to expand its production and sales of building products, so the Alcoa Building was designed and built to demonstrate the architectural applications of aluminum. Aside from its 30-story structural steel frame, it incorporates as much aluminum as possible including aluminum wiring, plumbing, and heating and cooling equipment. More demonstratively, it was the first tall building to be clad in a lightweight aluminum skin, a modular system of prefabricated aluminum panels. The panels are aligned with weather-tight joints, stamped with a diamond motif, and punctuated by round-cornered aluminum-frame openings that recall airplane windows. The diamond motif relates to a similar motif in the paving of Mellon Square.
Two steel beams, cantilevered from the fifth floor, carry a four-story aluminum and glass pavilion that is tucked into the recessed elbow of the building’s L-shaped plan. This airy entry vestibule enlivens the street frontage and provides a transitional space between the street and the building lobby, between public and private space. Called the birdcage, it appropriately houses artist Mary Callery’s Three Birds in Flight (1953).
When it opened, the Alcoa Building and its materials were promoted with the slogan, “Aluminum on the Skyline.” It contributed an elegant, slender, rectilinear figure to a distinctive Pittsburgh skyline whose corporate constituency andmaterials reflected Pittsburgh’s twentieth-century industrial strength. The Alcoa Building was the most acclaimed architectural product of Pittsburgh’s postwar Renaissance era, and became the Pittsburgh building most commonly included in discussions of significant twentieth-century American architecture. Nonetheless, Alcoa, seeking larger and more open floor plates, relocated to the Alcoa Corporate Center on Pittsburgh’s North Shore in 2001. The Alcoa Building now houses a mixed-use program of office and residential functions, while it remains modernist landmark.
By Martin Aurand, architecture librarian and archivist, Carnegie Mellon University
Aluminum Company of America. Aluminum on the Skyline. Pittsburgh: Aluminum Company of America, Pittsburgh, 1953.
Harwood, John. The Troubled Search: The Work of Max Abramovitz. New York: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, 2004.
Newhouse, Victoria. Wallace K. Harrison, Architect. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.
Harrison & Abramovitz 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 governor of New York. He oversaw notable projects like the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts. Abramovitz designed Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. The firm designed a number of other important skyscrapers for Pittsburgh.