Pittsburgh’s most ambitious contemporary building draws some of its best qualities from connections and references to its century-old campus. Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science Department was one of the nation’s first at its founding in 1965, but it spent the early millennium in the innocuously traditional Newell-Simon Hall. As it outgrew that facility, a $20 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped elevate the desire for architectural visibility in a new one, while a $10 million grant from the Hillman Foundation expanded the mission into an additional related and contiguous structure.
A building committee traveled the country studying similar facilities and came away impressed with works by Atlanta-based avant-garde architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam, whose selection also excited architecture fans.
What had previously seemed like a back-of-house site takes center stage with an architectural dervish. Ten levels of space nestled into the compact, steeply sloping site are only possible through floors of divergent angling and projecting shapes which increase in size as the building rises. The architects solved a challenge that the clients thought was impossible–to give each of 310 offices its own window, while also providing connection, illumination and space for 217,000 square feet of offices, classrooms, labs, and all manner of breakout and study spaces. The windows are also each uniquely sized and shaped, with creased zinc surrounds against a background of black diamond shingles. The zealous surface combines with the cubist sensibility of the building mass to hint at the sculptural and intertwining spaces inside, which are gathered around a 650-foot, multi-story spiral ramp. Its profusion of frenetically adjoining solids and voids make Wright’s Guggenheim Museum look serene by comparison.
At the same time, key building dimensions and profiles echo original campus architecture by Henry Hornbostel, and those distinctive windows are clearly a digital age reinterpretation of his design strategies. With the help of a designed landscape by Michael Van Valkenburg, the building creates a new campus space with some conscientiously-designed connections to pre-existing neighbors.
Detractors may claim the building is confusing and overwrought, but no other contemporary structure in the area is nearly this exciting. The American Institute of Architects agreed in 2012, when it gave the building an Honor Award for Architecture, one of nine buildings nationally to receive such a designation.
By Charles L. Rosenblum
Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam founded Mark Scogin/Merrill Elam Architects in 1994. The firm is based in Atlanta, Georgia.