If only he had been allowed to play with the fish in his bubbie’s bathtub, maybe he could have been
a famous architect, mused Arthur Lubetz, whose distinctive and imaginative structures have nonetheless changed the landscape of Pittsburgh — and other cities — for the better.
“My grandmother was a really big influence on me,” said Lubetz, 77, who is a lifelong Pittsburgher. “She used to buy fresh fish and let them swim around in the bathtub until she would — you know — slit their throat. I’d go in and I’d want to play with the fish, and to keep me from doing that she would tell me these stories about the Kabbalah and the importance of words and numbers, and that stuck with me my whole life.”
Lubetz — down-to-earth and with a keen sense of humor — contrasted his childhood with that of another Jewish architect,
Frank Ghery, whose structures are cited as being among the most important works of contemporary architecture in the 2010 World Architecture Survey.
“Frank Ghery’s mother let him play with the fish,” Lubetz explained with a smile. “He became a famous architect. I didn’t because of my grandmother.”
But fame, like so much of architecture, may rely on perspective. Lubetz has developed a worldwide reputation for his own designs, buildings that boast unusual geometrics and offer surprising points of view. His body of local work includes the remodel of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill, the Glass Lofts in the Penn Avenue Arts District and the Sharpsburg Community Library.
An exhibition celebrating his work, “Action, Ideas, Architecture: Arthur Lubetz/Front Studio,” opened on Saturday at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA). It runs through May 22. The exhibition features models, drawings and photography on loan from the Carnegie Mellon University Architecture Archives, Front Studio and other lenders.
Lubetz, a graduate of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), has taught architecture courses at CMU for almost 30 years. Recognition for his work include an In the Public Interest award from Architectural Record for his Lincoln Towers housing complex near New York City and an award from the AIA of New York City recognizing his design for the Hartford, Conn., city hall, office complex and library. He has had an architectural studio in Pittsburgh since 1967, and for the last five years, he has been in partnership with two of his former students — Yen Ha and Michi Yanagishita — operating as Front Studio, which has a second office in New York City.
Lubetz was born in Squirrel Hill, but his parents decided to move to Mt. Lebanon when he was in third grade, a decision that may have changed the course of his life.
The Lubetz family was only the sixth Jewish family to set up a home in Mt. Lebanon, and the years they lived there were difficult because of the anti-Semitism, Lubetz recalled. After just two and half years, they moved back to Squirrel Hill.
“But I also had something really good happen to me in Mt. Lebanon,” he said. “My fourth-grade teacher had a little competition to do a drawing of a car. And she picked mine as the winner. Mine won because it had combined what a car looks like with what a plane looks like. It had this nose on it that looked like the end of a plane without the propeller, and it had two tails where the fenders are. This is 1950, this is before there were fins on cars.”
After he won the competition in Mt. Lebanon, he went to the Arts and Crafts Center (now Pittsburgh Center for the Arts), where he met teacher Anita Morgenstern who was impressed with his car drawing and encouraged him to pursue his interest in the arts. When he was 13, Lubetz attended the Carnegie Tech Saturday art classes and began doing odd jobs for Morgenstern in exchange for art lessons.
“She kept going at me about being an artist, and I didn’t think I was talented enough,” Lubetz said. “So, I was going to be a doctor.”
But after an emergency room visit in which he saw several victims of an auto accident, he changed his mind.
“The next weekend I went back to work with her [Morgenstern], and I said, ‘I’m not sure I want to be a doctor,’” Lubetz recalled. “And she grabbed me — and I weighed 280 pounds then — and almost literally threw me in the car and walked me through the architecture department at Carnegie Tech. So, I started to read about that and said, ‘Maybe it sounds like something I’d like to do.’”
He credits Morgenstern with setting him on the career path that in some ways has defined his life and certainly has defined what architecture can be in the Steel City.
Much of Lubetz’s work is notable for its inventive use of elements that most people would not think to combine. For example, the Dalzell Place house he designed, for which he is “infamous,” he said, sports “a red wall that looks like it was thrown through the house and goes in the front and comes out through the back.”
Lubetz maintains that architecture is, in fact, art and will speak on that topic at a talk entitled “Why Art?” on March 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the CMOA Theater, in conjunction with his exhibit.
The title of the talk has a double meaning, playing on the architect’s bemusement that anyone would think his work is worthy of an exhibit.
“It started out, ‘Why Art?’ because I couldn’t believe I was going to have this exhibition because my work is all very low-budget work,” Lubetz said. “But then it also had the double meaning because I decided the reason I was having the exhibition is that some of my architecture — I don’t want to say it is art, but it approaches art.”
He has been working full-time for five decades, but the architect has no intentions of slowing down, ever.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I enjoy what I do. And I’ve had more than a couple friends who retired and in six months, they drop over. If I’m going to drop over, I’m going to drop over here [in his studio] with a pencil in my hand.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.