The August Wilson Center


African American Culture

Pittsburgh, PA

This energetic, urban infill building is a transformative first-voice cultural Center that celebrates the contributions of African Americans to American culture, art, music, and theatre in the region and globally...past, present and future. The two-story, 64,500 GSF facility includes a 486-seat proscenium theatre, 11,000 GSF of exhibit galleries, a flexible studio, a music café and an education center. Named in honor of a native son world renown playwright, this forward looking one-of-a-kind hybrid institution, engages the broad and complex diversity of this culture in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Strategically composed on a tight triangular site, the building exploits the moment where two city grids converge and the Cultural, Convention and Downtown Districts overlap forming a gateway intersection. The Center celebrates the corner with a robust curvilinear form inspired by the full sails of the dhow, the majestic sailing ships that transported Swahili culture from East Africa. In a context of heavier, more opaque buildings, the curve breaks the norm and anchors the corner as urban art. The building is a composition of highly controlled programmatically specific volumes and flexible public space. At both levels flexible uses are organized behind the north facing glassy façade that extends 328 linear feet along Liberty Avenue. With optimum solar orientation this transparency invites the surrounding historic context in to enrich the interior experience and engage the place in the city. The building is a giant picture window framing the constant transformation, evolution and influence of this Culture, active and glowing proudly from within. At nighttime this is most profound.

To acknowledge the significance of the street as common space and as a stage for urban life, the sidewalk slides into the building connecting the street level uses. Open ceilings with linear baffles, ceiling rigging, graphic scrims and sealed concrete floors establish a functional theatrical aesthetic. The second level overlooks the street, porch-like, and two large pivot doors subdivide the long space yet allow crowds to move fluidly between spaces during events. The highly controlled exhibition galleries absorb the triangular site geometry and are situated between William Penn and the sloped stone wall illuminated at night and glowing with abundant indirect north light during the day. The formal stair moves against the stone wall and is the zipper between the galleries and flexible spaces that extend along Liberty Avenue. The south east facing William Penn façade is windowless activated with a glowing light strip and processional banners. The regal purple drum-shaped theater dowels the two floors together.

The commission was awarded in an invited design competition, achieved LEED Certification and was delivered for $22,500,000 in 2010. 

by Allison G. Williams FAIA while Design Principal with Ai