Stamatakis: Posvar a better-planned building than the Cathedral

By Nick Stamatakis

If all of Pitt’s buildings went “Transformers” on us and became robots, and students then… If all of Pitt’s buildings went “Transformers” on us and became robots, and students then elected a lead building, which one would win?

In addition to revealing how lame my imaginary scenarios are, the likely answer — the Cathedral of Learning — demonstrates that people vote for stupid reasons.

At first, the Cathedral might seem like a sound choice: No other building, after all, is more recognizable as Pitt property. It towers over Oakland, reminding the thousands in the vicinity who’s boss.

The Cathedral’s size is matched only by its majesty. John Bowman, the chancellor at the time of its creation, asked architect Charles Klauder to design a building that looked how German composer Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure” sounded: forceful, beautiful and permanent. And over 80 years later, his vision remains intact  — at least from the outside.

When you compare the Cathedral with its competition, who to vote for seems clear. Would you choose the sprawling, squatting contortion of concrete known as Posvar? Would you even consider Towers, which, if they were music, would sound like nails on a chalkboard rather than a classic opera?

No. But this is where we make our mistake. Ultimately, a building’s principal strength isn’t its image but its utility: the building’s ability to contain, move and shelter people.

By these standards, the Cathedral of Learning is probably the worst building on campus. In fact, considering its lines and crowded corridors, it might be more appropriate to call it “the Cathedral of Waiting.”

Think about the area surrounding the building. Even the four street corners that encircle it are some of the most difficult to maneuver on campus. The Bigelow side suffers from too many students, crushing each other to get past left-turning cars and angry bus drivers. Meanwhile, the Bellefield side is either a trapezoidal deathtrap near the Music building or an awkward T near the museum where you look backward to go forward.

Compare this to Posvar, which can be entered from Towers through a covered bridge hovering over Forbes Avenue. It’s probably one of the ugliest things on campus, but it gets you from A to B.

Once you enter the ground floor of the Cathedral, things get even worse. The ceilings are so low that you can’t even do jumping jacks. And even if they were higher, the throngs of people and the doors that burst open at random intervals would bowl you over.

Then there’s the waiting. The doors are too small for two people to fit through comfortably, so you have to wait for one person to clear the way. There are never enough tables available in the common areas, so you have to wait for one to open.

And of course, we can’t ignore the elevators, which cause the longest delays in the building. The horrifying metal cages move up inverted mine shafts with the grace of a ballerina choking on a gumball. It takes so long to get up to the Honors College that it might as well be in a different time zone. In fact, everything there starts five minutes late, on what is colloquially referred to as Cathedral Time.

Oh, and I’m still waiting for that Chick-fil-A sandwich.

Despite the majesty of its exterior, the actual usability of the Cathedral is very low. The building is really that salt-and-pepper haired, stately looking Presidential candidate who projects strength and swagger. He has awesome campaign music, a celebrated history and that quintessential Presidential feel. Unfortunately, he’s also severely flawed and operates in his own insular universe, on a kind of “candidate time.”

As homely as it appears, Posvar is the best robot-building candidate for Pitt. While on the outside it might look like a drunken toddler with a tank of Legos created the design prototype, it is fundamentally functional. There are no elevators that slow things down, plenty of room for jumping jacks and tons of nooks with tables and chairs.

Considering tthat everyone from Machiavelli to MIT researchers has observed how important looks and attitude are in democracies, I suspect this column won’t change very many opinions. The Cathedral would still win any robot-building election if it were held today.

But just remember: When toilets start getting “repaired” by nothing more than a garbage bag taped over the lid and you start losing cell phone reception everywhere because of newly erected 5-foot-deep stone walls, don’t say you didn’t see it coming.

After all, you were staring at it the whole time.

Contact Nick at [email protected]