U. S. Steel Tower and BNY Mellon Center

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The tallest and second-tallest buildings in Pittsburgh.

Whatever one thinks of its design, the U. S. Steel tower dominates Pittsburgh in a way few cities are dominated by a single building. For some time after it was built in 1970, it was the tallest building outside New York and Chicago. At 841 feet tall, it’s a little more than two-thirds the height of the Empire State Building, so it was never the tallest thing in the world. But it is massive in a way no other skyscraper quite matches.

Most tall skyscrapers taper: this one goes straight up without interruption. The lobby covers an entire acre on the ground, and the roof covers an entire acre as well. No other building in the world has a roof as big as this as high as this, and there is more floor space in this building than in the Empire State Building. The three sides of the building (the floor plan is a triangle) are so enormous that the lights in the windows, controlled by a central computer, are sometimes used as a gigantic dot-matrix display, especially when a local sports team has had some notable success.

The U. S. Steel company had, in fact, seriously considered the idea of building the tallest skyscraper in the world here, but eventually settled for this massive hulk. It’s made of a kind of steel called Cor-Ten, of which the company was very proud: as it rusts, it gains strength. (The unforeseen side effect was that the sidewalk on Grant Street turned rusty for half a block in either direction.) The whole point of the thing is to say “STEEL” in a voice that can be heard fifty miles away. As a feat of engineering, it’s quite impressive; as architecture, it resembles nothing so much as the black monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lobby, however, is wonderfully dramatic, with the vertical lines of the massive structure above beginning their flight upward as impossibly slender columns of steel.

UPMC, a nonprofit medical conglomerate, bought the signage rights in order to fulfill its charitable mission more efficiently.

A kind of underground civilization of meandering tunnels lined with fast-food joints connects these two buildings and the Steel Plaza subway station beneath them.

This view from Crawford Street was opened up by the demolition of the old Civic Arena.

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