The House That Glass Built
After 30 Years PPG Place Still Shines
by Ellen Rogers
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported it April 30, 1979. That’s when
architect Phillip Johnson “declared Pittsburgh as ‘the most beautiful
city in the world,’”
“Even the most chauvinistic Pittsburgher had to raise his eyebrows at
that one,” opined the Post-Gazette.
But this “City of Bridges” was then undergoing what’s known as its second
renaissance; a building boom that would radically change its skyline.
Among the towers that were built during that period was a new headquarters
for PPG Industries. Now, 30 years since the project’s completion, it still
stands as a landmark building and a defining structure in town.
In 1979 PPG and the city of Pittsburgh unveiled the preliminary designs
for what would become PPG Place. Approaching its 100th anniversary, the
company was quickly outgrowing its location in Pittsburgh’s Gateway Center.
It was time to build a new headquarters—one that would not only meet growth
requirements, but would also establish new dimensions for urban redevelopment
and new standards for urban design.
The architectural team of Philip Johnson and John Burgee, then the New
York-based firm of Johnson Burgee, designed the 40-story tower, which
was constructed, not surprisingly, of PPG glass—a lot of glass. The $100-million
plus complex features 1 million square feet of space in the tower and
600,000 square feet in the five associated buildings. The development
comprises five acres within the city’s Market Square and Gateway Center.
According to PPG’s archives, the buildings were designed to serve as an
architectural bridge between Pittsburgh’s older, more decorative buildings
and the geometrically shaped high-rises that punctuate the skyline. The
architects recalled architectural details from the city’s free-standing
towers … and invested the entire design with a uniquely modern flavor.
“The preliminary architect’s rendering gives promise that the new PPG
Industries building will have a great architectural significance not only
for Pittsburgh, but will likely achieve world recognition as well,” said
Richard F. Sperring, who was PPG’s vice president of administrative services
at the time.
“Pittsburgh is a city of individual beautiful towers, such as the Richardson
tower of the County Courthouse, as well as the Gulf building and the Cathedral
of Learning,” Johnson had said. “In the new PPG building we hope to have
a similar tower that will enhance this reputation with even more beauty.”
The complex was dedicated on April 11, 1984; the office space opened in
August 1983, just two and a half years after the construction began.
The tower and all the buildings in the complex are sheathed in a silver-tinted
reflective, insulating glass manufactured by PPG. The all-glass façade
has a faceted column appearance; about 70 percent of the façade consists
of vision glass and about 30 percent is spandrel. The expansive tower
lobbies are paneled in PPG Spandrelite glass and the elevators are enhanced
with a laminated cracked glass mirror.
Patricia Lowry was art and architecture critic for the Pittsburgh Press
before joining the Post-Gazette, where she later became its architecture
critic in about 2000. She was working as an editor when the design for
PPG Place was revealed and also when it opened in 1984.
“I didn’t write about it then, but agreed with the general opinion in
architectural circles here: that it was strong on the skyline but problematic
at street level. Architect and Carnegie Mellon University architecture
professor David Lewis remarked that it hit the ground ‘like a glass guillotine,’
and the plaza was austere in the extreme,” she says. “Still, it was clearly
an instant icon, one that used glass the way the U.S. Steel Building used
steel, to promote the product of its namesake builder. But where steel
implies strength and durability, glass suggests elegance, refinement,
fragility. Johnson and Burgee’s building dares to suggest that glass can
communicate strength and durability, too.”
Just as Pittsburgh was then a different city, PPG, too, was a different
company. Not only was it a primary glass manufacturer, but it also fabricated
glass, had a contract glazing division and made auto glass, as well as
an aluminum extrusion division. Mike Rupert, who today serves as the company’s
director—technical services, flat glass, was then a project manager responsible
for PPG Place construction.
“I was working in our then commercial construction group, the glazing
contracting arm of PPG,” says Rupert, explaining that while today the
company’s glass business is focused on manufacturing, it previously fabricated
insulating glass, designed curtainwall/window wall systems, ran an extrusion
line and erected both the glass a wall systems on buildings.
At the time, Rupert had been with the company for about six years and
was in charge of the [PPG Place] mock-up, which was done about an hour
north [of downtown].
“The mock-up was probably 100-125 feet long and included every in and
out of the wall you see today and it was several stories high,” he says.
“PPG had sold another job in town just around the same time … and in that
job was a similar curtainwall to what would be used on PPG Place and I
also ran that job. And the real purpose was to develop the core group
of ironworkers and glaziers who would erect PPG Place so [when that one
was finished] we could take those guys down to the PPG Place project to
be able to say, ‘here’s a well-disciplined, knowledgable group of installers
He explains that for the PPG Place project the company fabricated and
installed the glass. The curtainwall was extruded by Howmet Aluminum (Howmet
was eventually bought by Alumax in 1993).
“Even though we had our own extrusion group in Indiana, we did not have
the capacity for a project of that size,” says Rupert. “So, PPG was the
glazing contractor, owner and also the glass fabricator.”
Piece by Piece
Building PPG Place was not without its challenges. In 1979 the Post-Gazette
reported six area merchants had filed a lawsuit to block the city from
using eminent domain to acquire the site. Rupert explains, though, that
once those concerns were resolved the real challenge was constructing
a large skyscraper in a downtown location. Once the foundation started
and the project was ready for the glass he says they were faced with “the
complexity of getting it all there when you needed it …”
He says, “The engineering was established and we knew [the glazing system]
performed well. [We knew] the glaziers/ironworker were trained … but the
logistics was the biggest challenge.
“We had people on the phone full time coordinating deliveries, etc. Unitized
[curtainwall] at that time was somewhat rare. So the glass was in crates
[and the curtainwall] assembled piece by piece,” says Rupert.
In the original plans for PPG Place, energy efficiency was at the forefront
of the design. The project called for high-performance glass and its arrangement
on the exterior to be a major factor in the tower’s energy efficiency.
Even in 1979, the architects recognized that by allowing entry of large
amounts of natural daylight illumination while controlling heat gain and
loss, the glass would help reduce requirements for artificial lighting
and air conditioning—even then, the two major energy users in commercial
“That was before low-E coatings. Those were still five or six years away
from the mainstream. So we had to look at controlling solar heat gain
… HVAC needs, handling solar loads, lighting, occupant comfort etc.,”
says Rupert. “If you look at what’s used, it’s on clear glass, the solar
heat gain coefficient (SHGC) is slightly better than best solar control
low-E out there today. There was little spandrel area, so we had to manage
the heat and let in sufficient light. It might not be true daylighting
by today’s standards, but then it had the lowest number of internal fixtures
of its time.” The glass used was PPG’s Solarban 550, which has a neutral
silver, pewter appearance. According to Rupert, the visible light transmittance
is 20 and the solar heat gain around .26. In all, the energy-saving techniques
were designed to provide energy requirements of approximately 40,000 Btus
per square foot, which made it one of the most energy efficient high-rise
buildings at the time.
“The glass is darker, slightly reflective,” he says, “Though not as reflective
as some think it is. I think then 18-19 percent reflective, but not mirror
like. The insulating glass units were the typical construction for the
time and day. It was well constructed. I can’t recall a single seal failure.
It’s held up well for being in an urban environment.”
Then and Now
Though the glass remains the same as when the tower was first built, PPG
Place has not been without some changes.
“Every winter there’s an ice rink in the plaza [that provides an opportunity
to] connect with the citizens,” says Rupert. The 104- by 104-foot diamond-shaped
ice rink opened in December 2001 and offers approximately 9,600 square
feet of ice surface. The project was funded by Hillman Properties, the
building’s then owners, which acquired PPG Place in 1999 from PPG Industries
(see timeline to the right for more on the changes in ownership.).
But as far as the building itself, Rupert says that has remained pretty
much the same as day one.
“Interior work has been done and redone, but the exterior has remained
unchanged,” he says. “If the original architects came back I think they’d
say it has not changed.”
So, looking back on this project, what are some things that stand out
“I still believe the architecture blends with the city. As a corporate
statement the board of directors approved the design and the architects
did a good job,” he says. “Hundreds [of people] worked on it and they
have the same sense of pride. It’s there; it looks good and I expect it
will be there 100 years from now.”
As PPG celebrates the 30-year anniversary of its headquarters, the tower
stands as a symbol of more than just work for Rupert as well as many others.
“I learned there is real satisfaction in working on anything where you
drive to work and it’s physically there. There’s nothing like building
America; making something rise out of the ground that you can look at
and be proud of,” he says. “I learned job satisfaction; and having a team
that all feels the same … [knowing] it might be the biggest thing we ever
work on and that was a good feeling. That teamwork, we learned a lot;
it might be daunting … but you can do it. You really can and it was worth
Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on
Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.
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