02 November 2006

The Pittsburgh-Oulu Axis

My course on The North American City is now history, so to speak. In the course of the first half-semester, or “quarter,” I developed an email list of 45 students who attended one or more lectures. But since students do not “register” for courses, I never knew exactly how many students were "taking" my course, and all the coming and going made it very difficult to plan—even to know how many photocopies to make (and photocopies are important because students don’t buy textbooks). In the end, I had 24 students sit for the exam, with one more scheduled to take it on one of the days reserved for make-up exams or for people who have previously failed a test. These days are called Rästitenttipäivät.

Now my Pittsburgh seminar has begun. At the first meeting I had a grand total of five students, two of them alumni of the lecture course. The main project will be a formal seminar paper. Due in final form at the end of the semester, it also will form the basis of a major oral presentation. The class meets a total of twelve times, so it looks as if I will be responsible for presenting the material for seven sessions. Like everything else, that is subject to change, however.

This time I have been a little more clever in designing my course. Instead of relying on photocopies, I have constructed a syllabus that is 100% web-based. To do this I leaned heavily on the Digital Research Library of the University of Pittsburgh, a fully searchable archive of 521 books, plus maps, photographs and other images. And like the Digital Research Library, my syllabus is based on primary and secondary sources that are no longer protected by copyright. I plan to provide additional bibliographic advice, and in many cases, photocopies of current scholarly articles or book chapters, once seminar paper topics have been defined.

Along the way, I have discovered some truly remarkable digital resources bearing on the history of Pittsburgh. One in particular functions as a kind of an intellectual boomerang, taking me all the way to western Pennsylvania, and then back again to Oulu. Here’s the story.

A major Pittsburgh landmark is the University of Pittsburgh’s “Cathedral of Learning.” It is said to be the second tallest (after the University of Moscow) university building in the world, and it is an icon in part because of the way it rises more or less by itself in the cultural district of Oakland. A gothic skyscraper, we learn from Franklin Toker’s great book about Pittsburgh architecture that it is the work of architect Charles Z. Klauder, and it was the brainchild of Chancellor John Gabbert Bowman. It was constructed during the 1930s. Contentious issue have arisen in recent years about whether central air conditioning should be installed, about the question of cleaning (blocked so far by the preservationists, who argue that soot is an important part of Pittsburgh's industrial heritage), about illumination (the lights still come on at night, according to Wikipedia), and about the threat of terrorist attacks (bollards recently have been installed around the building's perimeter).

The Cathedral of Learning is more than just a much-loved symbol of the city. It is a heavily used educational building. It houses faculty offices, classrooms, a theater, and a computer laboratory. And on the first and third floors, there are 26 “Nationality Rooms” that pay homage to Pittsburgh’s unusually rich and diverse ethnic heritage. Some of the nationality rooms—the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav Rooms, for example—have been overtaken by history, which arguably makes them more interesting than ever. Fully 24 of the Nationality Rooms are working classrooms; two are for display only.

Wikipedia reports that a typical room “on the 1st floor (those built between 1938 and the 1960s) took between three and ten years to complete, and cost the equivalent of $300,000 USD in 2006 dollars. More recent rooms have cost in the range of $500,000 USD.” The Nationality Rooms have their own website, where we learn that there are eight new rooms being planned at the present time, including a Finnish Room. A fund-raising campaign is underway. Meanwhile, the Finlandia Foundation, Pittsburgh Chapter, and the Finnish Committee of the University of Pittsburgh have sponsored a competition for the room's design.

The winning entry was submitted by Mika Gröndahl, an architecture student from the University of Oulu. Here is a link to his submission, which is called the Big Dipper: http://www.pittsburghfinns.org/TheBigDipper.pdf. It strikes me as a little reminiscent of a Finnish sauna. The second-place winners were “a design team comprised of Eero Lunden, Heikki Muntola, Olli Saarikoski, and Eero Tapio from Oulu University for their Carelian inspired submission titled Piilu.” The entry that finished third was submitted by a team from Tampere University of Technology.

I propose that we hoist a noggin in honor of the three winning entries, the Oulun Yliopisto architecture school, and the proposition that you should never bet against a Finnish sauna. Kippis!


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