Anything but Ordinary: The Architecture of Arthur Lubetz

Interview by: Anna-Kate Payha

Arhur, a man with glasses and gray hair, sitting in a studio full of books and photographs of architecture on the walls. on his desk in front of him are stacks of paper and his fluffy cat
Lubetz in his studio. Courtesy Front Studio.

The architecture of Arthur Lubetz is impossible to ignore; from lime green facades to intersecting corrugated steel slabs, Lubetz’s buildings add a dynamic and cheerful palette to the cityscape. For Lubetz, that means that not everyone will understand or even like his buildings, but that’s okay with him. His goal is to draw the public’s attention to the built environment and ask people to question the architectural spaces they engage everyday.  

Lubetz creates what he calls “immersive architecture” at the intersection of architecture, philosophy, art, and neuroscience. His education and fascination with these fields is reflected in his built projects, which are some of the most dynamic buildings in Western Pennsylvania. As a Pittsburgh native, a graduate of Carnegie Tech—now Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)—and a professor at CMU’s School of Architecture, Lubetz has witnessed the changes of Pittsburgh’s industrial and urban identity.  Lubetz looks at new construction in Pittsburgh with a critical eye. He fears that if architects, designers, and builders do not create work that engages the public, architecture, as a creative field, will disappear. He believes mundane architecture can be overcome if designers challenge themselves to design with the public in mind. With over fifty-three years of experience and buildings scattered nationwide, Lubetz is shaping a new vision for architecture, one that everyone should experience. 

A small portion of Lubetz’s Czech glass collection in his studio. Courtesy Front Studio.

a self of colorful glass pieces and vases of all different vibrant colors, in front of a coral colored wall

Anna Kate Payha: Can you tell me about your collection of Czechoslovakian glass in your studio?

Arthur Lubetz: My collection started when I purchased two metal sculptures from a good friend of mine, George Nama, an artist in New York—both works incorporated knots. When I later saw some Czech glass pieces that seemed to have knots tied around them too, I bought one. I later came to learn that they’re actually small snakes. I liked  the simplicity of them, so when I realized how inexpensive they were, I decided to start collecting them. Collecting these pieces is part of the inspiration behind our use of bright colors and dynamic shapes in our Architecture.

The Sharpsburg Community Library is one of your most colorful projects. What was your approach? 

The Sharpsburg Library already existed when we were asked to take on the project. The program called for an addition to the back of the building where it would be hidden, but I argued that it should face the street so that it has an impact. In doing this, the existing structure would be totally enclosed by new spaces. The building committee immediately agreed to the idea. Putting the library on the street made it public and gave it a much greater presence. The colors and the activity of the library enliven both the street and the greater community. 

There’s meaning in all of our buildings. We use bright colors and dynamic shapes to capture people’s interest. We feel that by capturing someone’s attention, they will look at the building and begin to consider our intentions beyond slapping some bright paint onto funky shapes.

Sharpsburg Community Library, exterior view of the entrance. Photo by Ed Massery. Courtesy Front Studio.

a building made up of rectangular prisms, where the individual prisms seem to collide and slice to each other - the building uses bright primary colors

What projects are you working on now?

We’re working on a lot right now, but I am excited about a house renovation were doing in Bloomfield. It’s for a video artist and he’s a neat client. The house is a bunch of fragments, which we have to complete in phases. You can’t tell that much has happened based on the house right now, but when we pull the front porch off and start screwing around with it, our vision will become much more obvious. I’ve been influenced by deconstructivism, but I prefer to say that our work, including this house renovation, is more like RE-constructivism. I believe that incompletion and the reuse of elements from the past really get into user’s minds.

We’re also working on a project with artist James Turrell at The Mattress Factory, integrating one of his Sky Space installations into the building. It is essentially a blank room with an opening in the ceiling, so people can walk inside, sit, look around, and watch the clouds above them. Actually, the installation is pretty engaging.

The Mattress Factory already has two Turrell pieces that are also intense, and he is intense when you get to meet him, but he’s a great client. Barbara Luderowski, the founder of The Mattress Factory, was amazing too. She was a brilliant woman, and an amazing client. Barbara came to us with an open mind and wanted to hear what we had to say. 

What do you look for in your collaborations?

Our ideal client comes to us with an open mind, unsure of exactly what they want. That’s when we get to do the serious work. I don’t want clients who are looking for plain, ordinary work—I’m too old to bother with that.

James Turrell, Unseen Blue, 2002. Photo by Michael Olijynk. Courtesy the Mattress Factory Museum.

a room with wooden seating ad a wooden floor, with bright yellow walls and a blue swaure on the ceiling that looks like you're peering out at the sky

Let’s talk about “incompletion.” I know PLP has worked on an essay with you, “The Art of Incompletion.” How does this concept guide your practice?

I think the impact of incompletion in architecture is like a good story. I watched a movie last week about a young fellow writing a book; The movie starts out with a couple arguing, but you don’t know what they’re arguing about. You try to connect them back to the young writer, but you still don’t know how or why. As the movie progresses you learn more, but then start to wonder, “what do these events have to do with anything?” The point is that as you try to fill in the gaps, you engage your mind. It’s similar with incompletion in the built environment.

Our architecture is intended to engage your mind like a movie does by appearing to be incomplete. It’s like how boring a movie can be if there’s no suspense or anything to question. When you look at most buildings that have everything spelled out for you, you don’t think twice about them. You don’t want to go inside or sit there to look at them because there is nothing there activating your mind. There’s nothing to imagine or experience.

Can you explain how you apply this concept to your architecture?

Instead of constructing “complete” buildings, we purposely implement gaps or missing pieces. Like our office building in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, currently under construction, that has a red band right in the middle of it that goes up and down , almost like a sawtooth; it is meant to look like the building is being pulled apart. I don’t know how many people see our intentions, but we have fun putting them together, and I’m sure some people do understand it.

The Glass Lofts, Pittsburgh, PA designed by Front Studio. Photo by Ed Massery. Courtesy Front Studio.

lime green and gray buildings - the exterior of some sides of the building are slanted, and the windows seem almost randomized

What else inspires your work?

Philosophy and art. I’m putting a book together called Immersive Architecture that explores the intersection between architecture and artists that do immersive art, like Richard Serra. He has a whole list of transitive verbs, columns of them, “to do this,” or “do that,” and then he uses those words to come up with dynamic work. Our buildings are inspired by a similar process to create an engaging, immersive, and sensory architecture.

My interest in making my architecture more immersive stems from my interest in neuroscience—the science of the senses. Neuroscience has zeroed in on which parts of the brain are engaged by the different things we experience. Neuroscience could change how architects predict how people will react to their buildings, but unfortunately there aren’t too many architects that think about or look into neuroscience.

How should architects start looking into neuroscience?

I just think that architects should start reading, period. When I go down into Pittsburgh’s Strip District I’m embarrassed to say that I’m an architect. They ruined a unique, historic neighborhood with boring, ordinary, unengaging, ugly architecture.

In one of your publications Re-Architecture, you include a quote from Patrick Schumacher, “STOP confusing architecture and art.” Why did you feel that was important to include?

Because it’s not true. He’s wrong. In our book we have the word “bullshit” written across that quote.

Top Notch Art Supply, exterior view of the front facade facing South Craig Street. Courtesy Front Studio.

a large scale yellow pencil sticks though the window of an traditional gray brick facade

You also quote Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who states that the “modern arts are not so much unpopular as they are anti-popular.” What does that mean and how does it apply to your architecture? 

At that time, the general public was referred to as “the masses.” They used the word “masses” because it was impersonal and had nothing to do with a specific person or a specific group of people. People were just a nameless mass. The undertone of that is that people don’t count. According to Ortega y Gasset’s theory, the artist, client, and elite are the ones that count, the masses didn’t mean anything. When Andy Warhol made prints of Campbell’s soup cans, he took an ordinary mass-produced product and turned it into art. When he created art that the public could relate to, he was breaking down of the idea of the masses. This is still a problem we need to address in contemporary architecture. Many architects tend to be rather effete and not interested in the public. That’s changed a bit recently, but it hasn’t changed completely. Architects don’t care if ordinary people see or understand their buildings. They don’t give people anything to understand. Architecture should relate to a large audience because architecture is a public art. It’s out on the street. You can’t not see our studio when you drive down Craig Street. The pencil going through Top Notch Art Supply Store on the other end of Craig Street is ours, too. Our work is meant to be accessible to everyone. 

Amongst a lot of new construction in Pittsburgh today there are still many cases of preservation of architecture. What role does preservation play in your work today?

Our current project on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood has an existing building on the site that our client told us to tear down. I didn’t want to do that because it’s a good building and stood in the community for at least seventy years. It has recognition, references, and meaning, so I talked our client into renovating it instead. We’re building new units around and inside the existing structure to preserve the existing building. So the community will be changed by our project, but it’s also going to stay the same. 

Exterior view of Front Studio’s Pittsburgh office renovated and designed by Front Studio. Courtesy Front Studio.

cement bricks form a wall that hides the entrance of a red square building with small square windows

What can the public do to be more involved? 

Just be more curious. People are surrounded by architecture that they never notice. They spend at least eight hours a day in a building and then they go home and spend hours in their house. Many of the newer houses around here are those cookie-cutter Ryan Homes and most of the office buildings are boring, with nothing to look at. People don’t realize what they’re missing by not building more engaging architecture. 

So as Pittsburgh continues to expand, what do you think the future of architecture here will look like?

I don’t have any hope about that. It’s scary to go downtown and see all of the buildings by famous architects like Henry Richardson, and then to go into the Strip District and see nothing. Look at the buildings the University of Pittsburgh is building; not much architecture there either. CMU isn’t far behind them.

You were a professor at CMU for over thirty years. What’s the most important thing you could teach an architecture student today?

To do work that engages the public. I never received that advice. If you’re going to be an architect, artist, musician, or an artist in any other creative field, your work has to become a part of life so that it’s important. I have become interested in making architecture a more important part of our culture and of people’s lives. If we don’t start thinking about architecture in a much more intense way, it’s going to literally just disappear. We will always have buildings, but if things don’t change we won’t always have architecture.

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