Transforming Pittsburgh: Anne Chen Designs for the World We Want

Interview by: Sarah Rafson

anne chen holding a white model, discussing with someone seated next to her. In the foreground is a brown chipboard model of Hillman Library, a large, square concrete building
Anne Chen discussing the renovation of University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. Courtesy GBBN.

New works of architecture stand out among Pittsburgh’s historic buildings. In downtown, for example, along a row of thin, turn-of-the-century “sliver” buildings, a set-back facade allows room for sculptures along the city’s sidewalk. A few blocks away, the steel and glass shell of a light rail station seems to grow from the earth. Within the stately Carnegie Library in Oakland, a calming bamboo-lined courtyard provides space for reading and working. What do these projects have in common? They’re all works by EDGE Studio, now the Pittsburgh office of the Cincinnati-based architecture firm GBBN, led by principal Anne Chen.

Chen first arrived in Pittsburgh to work at EDGE, founded by her husband, the late Gary Carlough. Since merging with GBBN, the practice has maintained its reputation for impactful work, a trait that defines the office’s work rather than a singular architectural style. As principal, Chen designs with people in mind, using architecture to define spaces at the center of Pittsburgh’s academic, cultural, and civic life. We sat down with Chen in her office in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood and spoke about the process of developing an architectural ethos, designing for the public, and building her own home.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Knoxville, designed by Paul Schweikher in 1965, was renovated by GBBN in 2016. Photo: Ed Massery. Courtesy GBBN.

a library with gray siding, shaped to have two trapezoid shapes forming the roof, with windows to let in light to the floors below. taken at night, warm light is seen through the windows

Do you remember the first moment you wanted to become an architect?

I grew up thinking I was going to be a doctor. I liked drawing and making things, so when someone would ask, “what if you don’t become a doctor?” I would say “architect,” but for no real reason. When I went to college, I took two semesters of chemistry and completely failed them. You know that whole intention of weeding out the pack? It weeded me out. Because of my interest in becoming an architect, despite having no idea what it was all about, I took an architecture studio. In my first studio I designed a space for a pianist, and it was horrendous, but I enjoyed it and stuck with it. After getting a liberal arts degree and working for a summer in New York, I decided I didn’t want to pursue architecture. I did a couple other things for a year and a half before realizing I hated all those things more than I hated architecture. My graduate experience was a lot more successful—I learned how to focus, manage my time better, and still had a lot to learn afterwards. I’m still learning.

You worked for Deamer+Phillips early in your career. How did that experience shape your work and practice?

Working with Peggy Deamer and Scott Phillips, I was involved in a lot of high-end residential projects. There were wonderful moments. The practice is really invested in the craft of making; I worked on an apartment on the Upper West Side in New York and a house in Montauk, which was lovely. The property was beautiful and the house was a wonderful design. It was great to go out there on site visits and have a beach day—I would drive out with my dog and hang out at the beach afterwards. What I realized, though, was that I didn’t get much fulfillment from doing single-family residential architecture projects. It’s very personal, as it should be, to hire an architect to do a custom design for you, but it wasn’t something I was interested in. I am decidedly much more interested in projects occupied by a larger public, where you have the opportunity to impact a lot more people.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Main Facility in Oakland, interior view of the teenspace. Pittsburgh, 2004, EDGE Studio (GBBN Architects). Photo: Dennis Marsico. Courtesy GBBN.

the interior of a library - frosted panels are pieced together to divide a larger space into individual pockets

Is there a particular project or client that has contributed to your growth as an architect?

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a terrific client that, despite their limited resources, really understands that space is part of how you enhance and promote your services. The Knoxville Library, a brutalist building that we recently transformed, is a building that most architects think is cool, but most other people think is horrible. It’s so cold, with exposed concrete masonry. The original design had lots of light through daylight funnels, but you couldn’t see outside because there were no windows to the street. Many people from within the community, and even within the library, wanted to demolish it. I think—I hope—we’ve convinced everyone the building was worth saving. We inserted modern elements and redefined it in a way that preserved its wonderful characteristics while giving it the elements that make people feel like it’s a place for people.

The Knoxville Library is a small regional branch, and you also did the first floor renovation of the spacious Carnegie Library’s Main Facility in the Oakland neighborhood—how did you approach those two projects differently?

Oakland’s first floor was the first project we did for the Carnegie Library. In the late ‘90s, the director of the library was Herb Elish; his appointment caused a scandal within the library community because he wasn’t a librarian. He realized people wanted to hang out at Borders and Barnes & Noble stores, not at libraries, so he started an initiative to redo the library buildings. The initial renovation was the first floor of the main facility, and he identified two branch libraries he wanted to renovate. He was very committed to the idea of hiring local architects, and hiring three different architects for the renovations.

We were hired for the main building in 2000. What won it for us was our internal exercise before the interview to find our favorite book in the stacks. It was not easy. There were lots of obstacles: you had to know how to use the card catalogue, then find where the book was in the library, and then if it wasn’t there, find who to go to and where to find them. It became clear that not only did the space need redesigning to feel current, but the system needed to become much more user friendly.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Main Facility in Oakland, view of the bamboo courtyard. Pittsburgh, 2004, EDGE Studio (GBBN Architects). Photo: Dennis Marsico. Courtesy GBBN.

an exterior picture of a courtyard with a wooden deck surrounded by bamboo plants and a wire fence - there are metal chairs and tables where people are sitting and reading

You designed some amazing spaces in that building, like the bamboo courtyard, for example.

That courtyard was an underutilized space, an unoccupied lightwell deep within the building. When you have a library that needs more space, it becomes a wonderful opportunity to insert something more modern that gives you a sense of being transported elsewhere. Within the existing neoclassical building, it was about celebrating the details of the plaster, the columns, and the traditional detailing by painting it white and lighting it well. The architectural elements we inserted within the existing space were glass and steel. It felt very modern.

You’ve worked on a number of libraries since the first Carnegie Library renovation almost twenty years ago. Is there something about the typology that particularly resonates with you?

There’s so much to admire in libraries, and we love working with librarians. There’s such an embrace of change—librarians are among the most creative people we’ve worked with. I think it’s because they’ve had to be so responsive to changes in how information is distributed. How can libraries continue to help people understand validated information in the digital age?

Gateway Light Rail Station. Pittsburgh, 2012, EDGE Studio (GBBN Architects) and Pfaffman & Associates. Photo: Ed Massery. Courtesy GBBN.

a steel and glass structure that arches over and covers the underground entrance to the train - the glass reflects the blue hue of the sky

In downtown Pittsburgh, GBBN designed the office space for MAYA Design, the Gateway Light Rail station, and the PNC Lantern Building; each is a very different typology.

Part of what’s so terrific about architecture is that it’s about sociology—how people use space—and about elevating a diverse range of people to help them do all the things that make the world a better place. It’s about learning about different industries and what people do, so if your clients are all different, you learn so much. That’s one of the things we love about architecture; specializing in one thing is not where our interest lies. With such rapid change in the past few decades, we have a social order with much greater diversity, with so many different viewpoints brought to academia and to the industry. When you speak to a new demographic, that demographic has an ownership stake. Thoughtful and critical architecture can be a part of expressing that. When you stick with an entirely Western canon of knowledge, architecture, and language, you miss the expression and possibilities of communicating and including of an enormous diversity of people.

Between changes in diversity, technology, and globalized communications, we’re in a moment where I think we have an advantage to have not be burdened by twenty years of the same type of project. In David Adjaye’s interview with Dezeen, he made this statement I completely agree with: architecture really should be about the world we want to live in and not the world we currently live in.

Willow Farms House, Pittsburgh, EDGE Studio (GBBN Architects). Photo: Ed Massery. Courtesy GBBN.

a house using both warm wood and dark black siding sits among a forest where the leaves are changing colors - fallen leaves cover the ground

I wonder if you could talk about the process of designing your own home in Pittsburgh with your late husband and partner, Gary Carlough?

Before our son was born, we were living in one of these typical four-square houses in Pittsburgh. Here’s a fun fact about that house—it’s the house where Michael Douglas’ character lived in the film The Wonder Boys. It’s a beautiful house, but it wasn’t built for how we lived. So when our son was born, we thought we could find a piece of property and design a house for the way we want to live.

I remember the design process being really easy, although some people in the office who worked on the project said we did actually get into some arguments and had to do things several times. (I might have selective memory.) There’s lots of flexible space. In my son’s room, for example, there’s a big pivoting door between the rooms, like the pivots we used in the Erie Art Museum and in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, where we both taught. When it’s in place as a divider it creates two rooms, and one can be used as a guest room. I credit Gary with that.

It’s a relatively small house, but it showcases a lot of materials we were really interested in. We ended up using Ipe in our house, which we had used on the deck of the bamboo courtyard of the Carnegie Library. We also used zinc, which we had been using in the East Liberty Library, and our house was one of the first projects where we used custom perforated panels from design to fabrication. We had developed a pattern for railings at the Erie Art Museum, but it relied on light coming in through the canopy of trees and we didn’t get to use it there, so we used it in the guard rail of the loft overlooking the main space of our house. A lot of these ideas continue to live on and develop in our projects today.

There’s a cliché that architects use their homes as their manifestos, to test out ideas that will eventually make it into projects, but it almost sounds like this is the reverse; a collection of pieces of projects through the years.

We were the architects, but at the end of the day, also the clients. When I was working on high-end residential projects, the clients wanted their houses to be very personal; we found we had the same feelings. We were constrained to a budget, we had to make this feasible, and we knew we were going to have to maintain it and live in it. Wild formal ideas were not something we were interested in pursuing for ourselves. It was about how we live—access to natural daylight, views, comfort, radiant floors, and ventilation. I didn’t want a huge place where my son could be in one part of the house and I would have no idea what he’s doing. It was about using resources wisely. It was very much just for us.

GBBN is an official sponsor of En Pointe and supported the first print edition, En Pointe Vol. 1: Pittsburgh.

About the author:

Sarah Rafson is an architecture writer, researcher, editor, and curator. A graduate of the University of Toronto and Columbia University’s Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices program, she has worked on books with Kenneth Frampton, Bernard Tschumi, and Barry Bergdoll, and collaborated on exhibitions at MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Center for Architecture in New York, and the Parsons School of Design.

While at MoMA, Sarah assisted in the development of exhibitions on contemporary architecture and was the editorial assistant for the catalogue of the 2015 exhibition Latin America in Construction.

While at Columbia, Sarah won the Buell Center Oral History Prize for her thesis on the feminist Chicago architecture curatorial collective, CARYATIDS. She currently sits on the board of ArchiteXX and writes on a range of issues in architecture and design.

Find Sarah on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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