3. PPG’s Unpopulated Places

PPG Place offers some of the interesting and least successful experiences for people on the street of any of Pittsburgh’s many commercial complexes.  Unhappily, it antedated and therefore lacked the benefit of Pittsburgh’s  guidelines for the design of outdoor public spaces.  Based on an analysis by Pittsburgh’s planning department of what worked best and worst in the city’s growing number of small urban parks and open areas, the guidelines were issued some five years ago and have since been applied by design teams with relative ease and great success.

PPG Place is a dramatic collection of six office buildings arranged by John Burgee Architects with Philip Johnson to create a five-acre urban enclave for the world headquarters of PPG Industries.  With a tower rising above 600 feet, the complex includes a million square feet of reflective glass and has four open spaces – Market Square, Market Street pedestrian way, the plaza and the winter garden.  Interior public space also is provided in PPG’s retail section, including its food court.

The issues were similar to those facing other cities, before and since.  Two blocks of a major street of some historic importance would be sacrificed, and the controversial legal tool of public land assembly would be applied to assure that enough real estate in the desired place and desired shape would be available for construction.  In return, the city would gain major improvements in and expansion of public open space, most particularly in the center of the six-building complex, with a plaza evoking the Piazza San Marco in Venice.

The first of the four public paces, Market Square, physically abuts the redevelopment plan.  A historic piece of open space bisected by two streets, it once was occupied by a public market.  The challenge was to accommodate the highly reflective PPG façade to a mix of 19th– and 20th-century commercial buildings surrounding approximately an acre of open space.  The solution is a physical relationship that appears to satisfy no one, save perhaps loiterers, panhandlers, and eccentric orators who occupy the square day and night.

Market Square’s principal retail offerings are in the six-story PPG II, a corner building.  It is a startling 21st-century insertion into an enclosure that includes an early-19th-century restored brick building and food franchises behind contemporary facades.  Streets intersect the park within the square and form boundaries for it, resulting in four smallish parcels, mostly grass filled, with an old fountain in one corner and some seating.  In a city whose vast pocket parks are among the nation’s most attractive and lively, Market Square looks like a neglected relic of public and private indifference.  Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer did produce an imaginative redesign reflecting the area’s earlier marketplace role while adding eating facilities, seating, trees, and a better balance of pedestrian and auto-bus facilities.  Alas, the plan so far has not been implemented because of scarce funds.  The dormant plan addresses the fear of “undesirables” by creating outdoor spaces that attract more middle-class people, thus diluting the perceived impact of unwanted people.  This is a strategy favored by urban critic William H. Whyte and seems to have worked in Boston’s highly successful Washington Street pedestrian mall.

Four physical elements of outdoor urban spaces affect how people react to them and how and to what extent the spaces are used.  A park, square, pedestrian mall, or even a simple street contains walls in the form of facades and signs that signal an at people react to them and how and to what extent the spaces are used.  A park, square, pedestrian mall, or even a simple street contains walls in the form of façades and signs that signal an attractive, secure environment or its reverse: a floor that must be suitable for intended uses; furniture in the form of seating, lights, fountains, eating facilities, newspaper or other vending machines or kiosks, trees and other landscaping touches; and people and their activities.  The people can range from police to prostitutes to picnickers.  Activities can range from drug dealing to festivals, vending, and sunning.

As a public room, Market Square rates about a four on a scale of 10 overall and about the same on each of its discrete elements – walls, floors, furniture, and people and activities.  As a destination, it attracts mainly a small population of loiterers.  For most others, it is a route to buses, shopping, or Heinz Hall Plaza two blocks away, one of Pittsburgh’s public spaces that rates a 10.

Unlike Market Square, PPG’s second public space, the the adjoining block of what was Market Street, has become a successful, traffic-free pedestrian way.  Effective use of fairly ordinary materials and techniques make this an an oasis and a magnet.  Although its location curtails the sunshine so popular with downtown office workers, Market Street’s tables and chairs are heavily used for brown bag lunches, reading, and people watching.  Less than a block from Market Square and its drifters, the new mall is both a destination and a passageway to much of the rest of downtown Pittsburgh.  In an interesting bit of contrast, it extends the gas style lighting from Market Square into the heart of the PPG complex.  One side of the mall is defined by retail stores with window displays.

The Market Street mall contradicts the new wave of urban open space criticism that proposes the restoration of city traffic to these quiet intervals to engender a renaissance in retail, which is thought to have been harmed by pedestrianization.  As is frequently the case in such spaces, there is no correlation here between problems in retail and elimination of traffic on what was Market Street.  In contrast the Market Square, this comfortable urban space rates an eight or a nine.  Its walls, floors, furniture, and activities send an inviting signal to Pittsburghers on foot.

In the May 1984 issue of this magazine Donald Canty praised PPD for the constantly changing scenery presented to pedestrians viewing the reflective bluish-gray glass and contrasted PPG’s distinctive presence on the skyline to the “graceless and boring” towers nearby.  While one may quarrel with Canty’s observation that PPG’s “historicist imagery  is qoven into the fabric of the city” or that the buildings make “good neighbors” to Market Square, there is little doubt that that PPG’s major strength is its impact from Mount Washington, across the Monongahela River, or from the highway approach from the airport.  While it isn’t Pittsburgh’s answer to the Empire State Building, PPG is a major skyline presence.

Indeed, much of what is troubling about the public spaces is traceable to the see-the-whole-complex-from-a-distance school of design.  Building Number One may be a remarkable skyscraper, but, like all buildings, it should also have a positive relationship to those walking about nearby.  The uncompromising extension down from the skyline makes these six crystalline shafts awkward elements where they meet the ground in the public space.

This is particularly true in the plaza, the third open space.  Its centerpiece is an obelisk that is reminiscent of, though shorter than, those used in the 19th century to adorn public spaces in London, New York, and Paris.  The problem is not the obelisk concept itself but that this one, when juxtaposed with the futuristic glass curtain walls that are its backdrop, produces an irreconcilable contrast between walls and furniture.  The floor and furniture speak of antiquity; the walls are sci-fi. But what of the people?

In a city that boasts two incline railroads worthy of Zurich, a train station restaurant evoking the Gare de Lyon in Pari, an intimate hotel created from a priory suggestive of a small Oslo hostelry, and a tram system reminiscent of Amsterdam, it was not unreasonable for Pittsburgh to anticipate a plaza as appealing as Venice’s San Marco.  Promised a San Marco, Pittsburgh received some nice pavers, a curious obelisk, and a glass curtain walls that reflect each other, Narcissus-like–but the result is rarely a gathering place for people.

As with most great urban spaces, the secret of San Marco’s success is less its floor and walls that its furniture and activities.  it is a vast refreshment area, a place to eat and drink while watching the passing throngs and pigeons.  PPG Plaza has no tables, no food, no pigeons, and virtually no people.  It lacks the fundamentals prescribed by Whyte and later by Pittsburgh’s own planning board, including eateries, shelter from the sun, and comfortable seating.  Except during occasional noontime concerts, the space is so vacant as to suggest that people are avoiding it.  On an ordinary summer day, during lunch or commuting times, there are so few people that one wonders where the 6,000 men and women are who work at PPG.

Is there a design flaw?  Local observers claim that the commercial space on the east side would not accommodate the restaurant promised at initial public project presentations.  But why not provide less than a full-service dining and beverages in the form of vending carts similar to those on at Boston’s pedestrianized Washington Street?  Light food and beverage service from noon to 6P.M. (when PPG retail establishments close) coul dbe served at small tables and chairs in the plaza that could then be removed if there is concern about overnight visitors from Market Square.

The competition from nearby public spaces designed after the adoption of open space standards is instructive.  The Heinz Hall Park is complete with food vendors, a waterfall, and delightful options of shade or sun.  The small park at the Oliver Plaza has similar appeal, as does the network of parks at the Gateway complex.  PPG Plaza meets the square footage requirements of the city’s rules, but it fails the test of public use.

The fourth public space, the winter garden, is a westward extension of the principal tower building and is used for exhibitions and other public activities.  This tree- and flower-filled interior serves such purposes well and must provide, on cold winter days, a pleasant seasonal counterpoint for those employed in the building.  It is, however, not easily accessible to the public from either the office tower or the street.  The latter entryway requires climbing more than one flight of concrete steps.  The result is a winter garden that is less than a public place.

PPG does not have the makings for successful urban retailing.  A peripheral  zone extending 1,000 feet from the edge of PPG Place touches only a piece of Pittsburgh’s Gateway office complex and misses most of the new and very large office projects at the eastern end of downtown.  The more than 100,000 downtown employees cannot conveniently walk to PPG.  Moreover, the project is small and there is little so special about the specialty retail or dining choices to warrant the trip.  And downtown competition is awesome, with good and even exceptional shopping and dining destinations neither at nor near PPG.

In Canty’s 1984 article, he also suggested that PPG Place “may be the most significant single large-scale addition to an American city since Rockefeller Center.  It is not an entertainment focus, its shops are not linked to streets and avenues to attract crowds, and it is not well integrated with public transportation.  It is just an office complex, a block from the transit line, with a modest number of retail and dining options.  Although it is promoted as a complex of 50 businesses, only about 30 are active and these include some money machines and a bootblack.

In addition, PPG’s food court is below grade, and, though the portion located in the atrium courtyard is attractive and popular, the other half has some of the feeling of a subway entrance.  The low ceiling and bad lighting are thought by locals to be responsible for high turnover among food vendors.  Probably more important, however, is that both escalators bring customers directly to the atrium area.  Only a single, hard-to-find elevator for handicapped access is near the non-atrium food area.

Only a few shops are accessible both from the food court and the street; these range from two or three very specialized stores to an optician’s office occupying the most prominent corner on Market Square.  A film store is all but invisible within an arcade.  All shops that were designed with the principal door on the street or the pedestrian mall keep those doors locked during business hours for security reasons.

The locked doors smother impulse buying and force the customer to a circuitous route of entry, adding delay to a short lunch period.  A locked door contravenes the most fundamental tenets of retailing, and unless the situation changes it will consign PPG’s future to just more service businesses in retail spaces, attracting few people and thereby worsening the emptiness that engenders much urban fear.  Moreover, PPG Place is dar as they say of closed theaters, after 6 P.M.

The problem with PPG is that it appears to have been designed from the top down.  A half century before open space standards, such as Pittsburgh’s, the designers of Radio City’s promenade at Rockefeller Center got it right–abundant seating, the play of water, outdoor dining, statuary, shop windows, flowers and greenery, and, winter and summer, people.

Remarkable.

Decades later, little has changed except the presence of a few children frustrated because the fountain wasn't working.

Little has changed at this still rarely used urban public space save the imposition of new rules taking into consideration possible use by children.

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