Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Image of the Steel City

In Kevin Lynch's "The Image of the City," he lays out a plan for understanding the built environment of a city based on human perception of the physical form of cities. Basically, he examines how the urban fabric is imprinted in our minds and accessed in our memories.

In this post, I am going to look at a more specific way a city imprints its "image" into our minds. Pittsburgh's historic image has imprinted itself not only in our memories, but also on the physical fabric of the current post-industrial city. It is this historic image of the smokey steel mills that has defined Pittsburgh, and even now in the 21st century, with the soot gone, the city's industrial image remains prevalent.

Smokey City
Eugene Smith, 1955
In 1955, photographer Eugene Smith captured Pittsburgh's industrial spirit in his work "Dream Street, W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project." In this three-year-long project, he portrays the city as an industrial dynamo, burgeoning in its prime. The city was the backbone of the nation's steel industry and Pittsburgh steel was used to build every great American urban center.  Here is a look at some of Smith's famous pictures of the Steel City.

Dance of the Flaming Coke
Eugene Smith, 1955

Pittsburgh, Steel Worker
Eugene Smith, 1955

US Steel, Pittsburgh
Eugene Smith, 1955

Pittsburgh Steel Mill
Eugene Smith, 1955

Today, the memories that Smith captured endure. This past week, I went around town searching for some of the remnants of Pittsburgh's industrial past, and was shocked at the extent of my findings. Aside from the textures that are imprinted with the soot from the steel mills (see Pittsburgh Textures post), here are a few examples of the historic image of the city.

Smokestacks at the Waterfront
Jeff Swensen for the NY Times

Mural, An Homage to Eugene Smith
Washington Post.com

Bessemer Court, Station Sq.
Ben Samson, 2011

Nine Mile Run Slag Heap
Nature in the Post-Industrial Landscape

Blowing Machine, South Side
Ben Samson, 2011
 The Steelers

Heinz Plant, North Side
Marantzer, Flickr, 2008

US Steel Tower, Tallest Structure between NYC and Chicago

Though the steel industry is gone, its presence remains ubiquitous. It is something that the city cherishes, and owes its character. Pittsburgh remains a blue collar town (at least in feel). The people embrace their working-class roots. This history is a source of pride.  It is evident in the name of the NFL team, the Steelers, who are the cultural lifeblood of the city. It is seen in Pittsburgh's skyline, in the US Steel tower. Old machinery and smokestacks act now as sculptures and cultural landmarks. Hiking and Biking paths mingle along old slag heaps. 

One can find instances of the historic image of Pittsburgh in all of the five elements that compose the mental maps of cities, according to Lynch. It is found in Pittsburgh's paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks. 

In designing any form of public transformation, a project that could vastly reshape the "image of the city," it is critical to consider Pittsburgh's industrial history and its historic image. The system must be respectful of this heritage and should coalesce with its deep cultural impact.


Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City, MIT Press Cambridge, Mass. 1960.

Stephenson, Sam. Dream Street, W Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project. W W Norton and Co. 2001.

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