The Bayer sign on Mt. Washington now spells out Pittsburgh in faded letters.

The sign now referred to as the Bayer sign has been a landmark in Pittsburgh since the 1920s. Right now it spells out PITTSBURGH in faded mosaic block colors, the steel city version of LA’s Hollywood sign. At one time it was as iconic as the city’s yellow bridges, grand fountain and red inclines. But years of neglect have rendered it a controversial eyesore highly visible from its perch on top of Mt. Washington facing the city.

Various advertisers and versions of the sign have come and gone. It was the Alcoa sign from 1962 to 1993. At another time it was a giant digital clock. And now the city  is reimagining the future of the site in the wake of Bayer declining its lease of the sign from Lamar Advertising in 2014.

So when it came time to find a challenge for this year’s Young Architects Studio Competition, the Bayer sign rose to the top. So to speak. What better–and more visible–project to reimagine? (The Young Preservationists Association named the sign and space as the best historic preservation opportunity in 2012.)

The Young Architects Studio Competition, presented by AIA Pittsburgh in partnership with the Design Center Pittsburgh, is in its sixth year as part of the annual Design Awards. And the scope of the competition has dramatically increased.

“The difference this year is the potential to influence many more people through design ideas. Previous competitions were more focused on intimate or individual experiences,” says Michael P. McDonnell, chair of the Design Pittsburgh 2015 committee. “When you focus on something as public as the Bayer sign site, you really have the potential to impact the entire region.” 

This year YASC is also partnering with Mayor Peduto’s office as part of the Pittsburgh 200 celebration. In taking on such an iconic Pittsburgh site, the competition reflects the tenants of the past and future of Pittsburgh being celebrated this year.

McDonnell remembers growing up and seeing the sign on television during Steeler games and feeling a connection to it that grew stronger when he moved to Pittsburgh for school.

“It has been a disappointment to see the sign become so tired over the years,” he says. “This is a real chance to reignite the imagination of what this city is all about, a chance to show the new Pittsburgh to the world.”

The competition is open to individual architects or design teams in both the graduate and undergraduate realm. The focus is on young architects, so participants who have been out of school for more than 10 years are ineligible.

Kevin Kunak, YASC communications committee chair, has worked on the competition since its inception. He says the real genesis of the competition is celebrating young architects in the Pittsburgh area and showcasing their ideas.

“We have great designers in the city that work in larger or medium sized firms that might not always get the recognition that you get when you work as part of large teams,” he says. “This is that one opportunity that allows them to explore their own creativity and see what kind of impact they can make on Pittsburgh.”

“Pittsburgh, as seen through their eyes, can really be a dramatically different place,” he says. “I hope this competition reveals treasures of our city that were hiding right in front of us.”

Rather than being pitted directly against one another, designs are judged by measuring performance against potential of the project based on a variety of criteria including memorable and impactful designs, the creation of a public place, promoting connections to adjacent communities and principles of sustainability and resilience, budget consciousness, and developing an appropriate character, place and experience suited to Pittsburgh.

The competition closes Friday, August 28. An “Award of Excellence” will be given to the winner. All entries will have the opportunity to earn the “People’s Choice Award” given based on public votes collected on AIA Pittsburgh’s online exhibit as part of Design Pittsburgh 2015.

Chris Koch, CEO of Design Center Pittsburgh explains that while there is some hope that part of the winning concept would be viable to take to a next level, it would take careful consideration and time before a new design could come into fruition.

And though the revamped sign would make the perfect 200th birthday gift, the competition serves more as exposure for young architects and designers while igniting conversations for new ideas and change.

“What we’re hoping to do is to spur a lot of ideas and really pique people’s imaginations about what could be possible for the sign,” says Koch.

Ian Mikrut

Ian Mikrut is a writer, proud Pittsburgh native and Grove City grad. When he's not at local concerts or trying in vain to improve his golf game, you might find him at DeLuca's in the Strip.