Something to Call Your Own

“Ownership” is an important concept in a design-oriented profession.  Ownership over something helps us to feel a sense of responsibility over it, which in turn makes us care about it… and helps us to succeed.  Especially when you find yourself working on a large project, following the redlined direction given by others, it can be difficult to feel as if you’re making your mark.  It’s important to try and find a piece of it, no matter how small, that you can take some ownership over, something that you can truly call your own.

Take, for example, a recent addition to Pittsburgh’s skyline, a complex mixed-use building on a triangular site, the first skyscraper to be added downtown in 20 (if not 30) years, and one of the largest projects to take place in the city in over ten.  The office that I worked for at the time had partnered with a large, San Francisco-based firm (not naming names, but it rhymes with “Mensler”) for the design and documentation of the project.

I had absolutely nothing to do with the planning, design, construction administration, or coordination of the building… nor would I ever even suggest that I did, or try and take any credit for the finished product.  But during a difficult week leading up to a pretty significant deadline, I was asked to step in and help detail the canopies at the pedestrian entries.  All four of them — at the entrances to the hotel component, the condominium component, the office tower, and the streetfront retail.  This involved the required depth of the structural framing, the geometry of the architectural cladding (your typical metal panel system, but with a custom aluminum extrusion as a “nose cone”), and the integration of the LED fixtures.  Oh, did I mention that all four of those canopies, while similar, were completely different from one another?

The building is 23 stories tall and extraordinarily complex in pretty much every regard, and the end result is a stunner.  I have an enormous amount of respect for the architects (in both offices) that brought it to life.  And, again, I would never even suggest that I had anything involvement in that effort.

But, anytime I walk past over my lunch hour, or stop by for a drink after work, when those canopies are (architecturally) allowing the building to be engaging at a pedestrian scale, and (functionally) shielding patrons from the rain, I think back to that week that I spent detailing and coordinating them.  No one else might know about it, but I had a hand in their creation.  And that’s something that I can call my own.

Pride, Without Prejudice

No matter where you are in this process that I affectionately refer to as “a path,” it probably goes without saying that you’ve already realized that a career in architecture is a crazy one.  It’s incredibly demanding and labor-intensive.  The hours can be long and the work difficult.  The rewards are often few and far-between.

My office specializes in higher-education work, and for the past two years I’ve been working on a handful of projects for Penn State.  I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a Penn Stater, and I’ve never been ashamed to admit it (even though the events of the past year — during which you would have had to have been living under a rock to not know what I’m referring to — have tested that resolve a little).  One of those projects — the Wellness Center, a 3,800-square-foot addition to the Gymnasium building at the Beaver campus — officially opened last week.  The campus held a formal Dedication Ceremony, and an article about it ran in today’s edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  It was a modest affair, but done right — over a hundred people attended, including Penn State’s president Rodney Erickson, who was on-hand for some celebratory remarks.

Somewhere in the middle of the pomp and circumstance, listening to Dr. Erickson talk of bright spots that otherwise could have been overshadowed in this difficult year, I started to feel an overwhelming sense of pride.  Pride in my alma mater, for sure, but also pride in the work that I had done in the service of it.  Functionally, it’s a brand-new fitness center… architecturally, it’s steel, brick, and glass… but metaphorically, the Wellness Center represents a new beginning, one that I had a hand in making a reality.

I’ll admit it — I sometimes get lost in the day-to-day minutiae, so much so that the enormity of what I do is lost on me.  The project has affected the students, the campus, the community, and, by extension, the entire university.  I realized that I have not only been working to create a wonderful new facility, I’ve also been helping Penn State take steps forward into its future.  It’s times like these when I am truly humbled by this great profession that I’ve chosen to serve.  I can think of no greater reward.