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FYIFunction: doing its job

Good buildings "know their audiences" and meet their needs.

  1. Containers for space
  2. Building types
  3. Houses of faith

    Discussion about function
    Activities about function

Bridges and Buildings

FYI Structure

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Discussion & activities

Containers for space

Buildings are, above all, containers for space.

Architects vary the shape, size, and arrangement of the space according to the human activity inside, with the result that most buildings -- even those that have been modified from their original uses -- announce to the world what they do, that is to say, they announces its function. For instance, churches may be distinguished by steeples and spires; factories by their smokestacks; schools by long hallways and spacious play areas. We usually interpret these building types unconsciously to help us navigate our city day-to-day, but we don't usually think consciously about these functional adaptations as living evidence of science, art, and the social customs of Pittsburgh's people.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The form of these building types are dictated by their funtion. Clockwise from upper left: Allegheny Middle School, Dollar Bank, Gulf Tower, Fort Pitt Blvd., house in Schenley Farms (Oakland).

Building types

What are the particular challenges of designing spaces for watching concerts? Sporting events? How do specialized building types like theaters, stadiums, stores, galleries, churches, schools, hospitals, and airports reveal their functions? What are the clues from the outside?

Buildings housing service businesses frequently announce their functions. Drivers even as long ago as the 1910s could easily spot a gas station by its characteristic architecture to accomodate pumps, signage, and service bays.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

This gas station Downtown sported the latest art deco styling to show motorists how up-to-date and modern it was. It's wide overhanging eaves, borrowed from train stations, served the function of keeping rain away from people pumping gas.

No building type is better at advertising its purpose than quirky, capricious diners! Diners have been dotting the roadsides of our region for decades, and built-in features such as stainless steel kitchen features and formica counters identify them as the "real McCoy." These original diners were factory-made then shipped to their destinations for final assembly. When they needed to be moved, they could be loaded back onto a flat bed trucked and hauled to new location!

Susan Donley

The Wellsboro Diner in Wellsboro, PA is a well-preserved example of the functional built-in mobile enamel and stainless steel diner.

Factories—like the North Side's Heinz plant or Eberhart and Ober Brewery, the Strip's Armstrong Cork Building or Heinz Regional History Center in the old Chatauqua Ice Company building, or South Side's old Duquesne Brewery—are harder to identify from the outside because they are simply sturdy buildings with large rooms that can house most any kind of heavy-duty machinery. For this reason, industrial buildings are often "recycled" into new uses over their life-times just as an old workshop used by George Westinghouse in the Strip is now being used to manufacture robots. Who would guess this building's present function from its over 100-year-old exterior?

Heinz Factory from North Side
Heinz Factory from riverSusan Donley

Factories, like these two buildings that are part of the Heinz plant on the North Side, house large machines and internal transportation systems.


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Houses of faith

Even within one building type, many functional variations can appear. Churches and temples, for example, share large, boxy shapes make their functions as meeting places clear. Their soaring architectural features --spires, bell towers, and stained glass -- announce symbolic significance while having practical uses. The upward thrust of domes and high-pitched vaulted ceilings draw eyes to heaven while they serve the practical function of holding the roof over a large meeting space without many distracting pillars.

Churches usually sit at the center of their communities and reflect the traditions of the ethnic groups that founded them. St. John the Baptist's Church on the South Side displays five large Byzantine domes, marks of the Ukranian immigrants who first started the congregation. Nearby, St. Michael the Archangel, was founded by German immigrants. Its tall spire and its setting high on the South Side Slopes resemble churches in Germany's Rhine Valley. At one time the South Side had as many Roman Catholic churches (for example, the Polish St. Adelbert's and the Irish St. John's) as there were languages spoken by new immigrant groups.

Jim Judkis for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The domes topping St. John the Baptist Church on the South Side reflect the architectural and spiritual heritage of the Ukranian immigrants who built it.

Jim Judkis for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks

The spire of St. Michael's Church sitting high on the South Side Slopes reminded its German parishioners of home.

In the late 18th century, several congregations -- sometimes called "Penn's Grant Churches," because they were made possible by a grant from William Penn to his nephews -- were established by the Point. The striking features of those churches continue to mingle, to this day, with the impressive downtown skyscrapers. You'll discover beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows, secret cemeteries, and the intricate arches and spires atop of Trinity Cathedral (Episcopal) and the First Presbyterian Church. (When first constructed, the spires of First Presbyterian were the tallest structures in Pittsburgh.) On Sixth Avenue sits Smithfield United Church, designed in the 1920's by the important Pittsburgh architect Henry Hornbostel. Smithfield United boasts the world's first structural use of aluminum in its spire. The German Evangelical Congregation itself was one of the original Penn's Grant Churches and is supposed to be the oldest in Pittsburgh.

A pair houses of worship by architect Henry Hornbostel

Right: The Smithfield United Church on Smithfield Street, Downtown.

Middle: Rodef Shalom on Fifth Avenue, Oakland.

Bottom: Emmanuel Lutheran, the "Bake Oven" Church

All: Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

And in Oakland, Pittsburgh's oldest Jewish congregation, Rodef Shalom, is housed beneath an enormous domed roof that is visible to those approaching from more than a half mile away. Designed in the 1920's by architect Henry Hornbostel, the temple is marked by intricate stained glass depicting the "Tree of Life" motif so central to the Jewish religion. It also has two distinct H's built into the temple's interior – suspected to be a small reminder the architect, incorporated by the Hornbostel himself!

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By interpreting the clues that speak of the function taking place within the buildings that surround us, we can move beyond written accounts to learn how Pittsburghers lived, worked, and worshipped over the centuries.

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Bridges and Buildings