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PPG Place and Obelisk

1984


Johnson/Burgee Architects



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Rome itself might blush at Pittsburgh’s many Renaissances, but PPG Place, built between 1980 and 1984, is the centerpiece of what many people call the second. Seen from afar as a distinct castellated glass tower on the skyline, the complex is actually six buildings and a substantial plaza that span three blocks between Forbes Avenue at Market Square to the Boulevard of the Allies downtown.

The steel industry all but disappeared in the 1970s, taking about half of the city’s population with it in a swirl of economic decline. Under the leadership of the widely admired Mayor Richard Caligiuri, PPG Place took shape as a gleaming architecture of optimism. Perhaps real estate development would stimulate, not simply indicate prosperity, in a complex costing $200 million at the time.

In Philip Johnson (with partner John Burgee) PPG got an architect guaranteed to provide notoriety and wit. Solidly in the heyday of corporate post-Modern corporate architecture, PPG Place epitomizes the movement's and Johnson's specific desire to make witty and even glib references to architectural history in an understandable rather than academically obscure fashion. So PPG is gothic revival in style, but it is re-imagined in glass, the signature material of the PPG corporation, Solarban 550 Twindow, in this case, 19,750 pieces of it.

The style may slyly connect to the Cathedral of Learning, but if there is an echo of London’s Victoria Tower as well, so much the better. By its completion, Pittsburgh had not had a skyscraper with a lively bit of ornament or a dynamically shaped top in half a century, so the cheery, referential nature of the architecture was welcome indeed. There are 231 spires here, in sizes up to 82 feet tall. This insistent departure from Modernist boxes become a chance for regular people to like architecture again.

Still, aesthetics at ground level seemed chilly in some places and unnecessarily constrained in others. The Winter Garden is not public space, it is corporate space, and a certain forbidding quality persists with limited access and unrelenting reflective glass.

But a more recent addition in the plaza of warm weather fountains and a cold weather skating rink in the plaza bring welcome liveliness to the outdoors. And the building has aged well. Where some of its contemporaries, such as Michael Graves’s Portland City Hall seem overblown and ridiculous in hindsight, PPG Place is a perennial local favorite. Best of all, it is so identifiably PPG’s building that it needs no illuminated sign to reinforce its identity.

By Charles L. Rosenblum, Ph.D. 

Phillip Johnson (1906-2005) was an influential contributor to modernist architecture. He graduated from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard in 1943 and then spent years at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as the founding director of the Department of Architecture. His piece-de-resistance was his personal home, the Glass House, which is still open to visitors today in New Canaan, Connetticut. He was born in Cleveland.

John Burgee (b. 1933) was the CEO of Johnson/Burgee Architecture until 1991. He now is retired in California. 

Johnson and Burgee worked together from 1967 to 1991 at the Johnson/Burgee firm.