Troy West, Advocate Architect


Rami el Samahy and Chris Grimley


Principals, OverUnder, Boston


Regional Spotlight, Pittsburgh
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Pittsburgh's Modern Milieu Part Five
Troy West, Advocate Architect

Because Pittsburgh is a city replete with mid-century architectural gems, it should come as no surprise that it was also home to a number of fascinating personalities during the modern era. In conducting the research for the Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center and the subsequent book, we made it a priority to meet some of the key players active during this critical time in Pittsburgh’s renewal. Among the most surprising discoveries was Troy West.(1) West was a surprise not just for his bold body of work, but for the participatory process by which they were created. His built legacy in Pittsburgh could be considered scant, but his influence on the city, the way architecture is taught, and the definition of a modernist architect is far more profound.

Troy West was born and raised in Pittsburgh. After graduating from Carnegie Tech he won the prestigious John Stewardson Memorial Fellowship in Architecture, traveled through Europe, and worked in Philadelphia with Louis Kahn and Oscar Stonorov. He returned to Pittsburgh in 1963, a tumultuous period in the city’s evolution, and was soon drawn to the vibrancy and culture of the Hill District, a largely Black neighborhood and home to the many jazz and poetry clubs that defined it. His advocacy-style teaching at his alma mater (now renamed Carnegie Mellon), and his collaborative practice presented a counter-narrative to the more top-down approaches that had earlier developed the Point and the Golden Triangle. His architecture embraced the expressive ideologies and forms of modernism, which, when coupled with his unwavering belief in architecture as a social project, became powerful forces in their own right to elevate the voices of those often ignored during the Renaissance.

His first practice, Architecture 2001, was an unorthodox architecture firm; it included a psychologist and a lawyer as part of its original make-up, as well as a construction arm (Construction 2001 was led by a carpenter who had learned his trade in prison). Also significant, the practice was heavily invested in the Hill District, where it was headquartered. West’s focus on the district was manifested in a 1967 project, the Court of Ideas. Located on an empty lot with a significant grade change, a series of sloping geometric concrete plinths were asymmetrically arranged to shape a forum-like space while negotiating the parcel’s uneven terrain. Designed and built in collaboration with the community, the project played host to numerous events during the late 60s and early 70s: poetry readings, political rallies, Christmas parties (one with the theme: “Is Santa Clause really white?”), and musical concerts (including Art Blakey and Abbey Lincoln). Designers, architects and planners—Richard Saul Wurman, Aldo van Eyck, and Robert Goodman among them—all visited the Hill to witness this experiment in public space and interaction.

With these projects West and his group gained the trust of the Hill community, and as a result the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) sought out Architecture 2001 for commissions in the district. Beginning with the design of a few temporary residential projects, modest houses on the Hill for families to reside between demolition of the old, and the promise of new construction. These infill row houses were built with simple materials, largely CMU block and plywood, but the inclusion of generous windows and a clever section ensured that light penetrated deep into the interior.

A few years later, the URA gave West, his firm now reorganized as Community Design Associates, a significantly larger commission. CDA worked with residents of the Lower Hill to produce “Our Way,” an alternative response to the city’s earlier plans for the area. The project strategically located programs in two long buildings on both sides of the existing Our Way Alley. The larger of these two bars was organized in a stepped mass containing multiple types of housing units. A superstructure covering the upper floors was to be planted to provide residents with both shading and fresh produce. Developed in collaboration with a local non-profit, West’s ambitious proposal synthesized concerns for housing, environmental conditions, and food production in a radically modern project that was in many ways the antithesis of the top-down planning that typified earlier schemes for the neighborhood.

The Hill District Map, a contemporaneous project, also provides an excellent example of the creative participatory design methods advocated by West—as well as the impulse to arrive at atypical solutions for bureaucratic commissions. In response to a Department of Transportation commission to produce a study of the Hill, CDA created an enormous map of the district (24' x 40'). West’s diverse team included two Hill residents, recent Carnegie Mellon architecture graduates, and a psychologist. Together, they listened to residents and drew a map that included every building and space on the Hill. The map reflected the impressions of the community, not cartographically accurate, but instead each element was proportional in size to the importance given by the people. The map occupied the entire floor of a storefront in the Hill; the neighborhood was invited to visit, view and comment.

Shortly thereafter, West left Pittsburgh for an opportunity in Newark, where he became one of the founding seven professors of the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture (NJIT was the first new school of architecture in the New York area in fifty years). Each professor was trained as an architect, but each had a secondary brief: structural engineering, sociology, history, etc.

Unsurprisingly, Troy’s was advocacy.

Architect, curator, and professor Ann Lui summed up West’s legacy in Pittsburgh this way:

"While his buildings were really interesting, in fact a lot of his work was in organizing, in collaborations, in getting people together. He would probably disagree with me, but I think that that part of his work was in many ways more influential than his built work. You’ll notice for example that when you look at other architectural photographs…, there are rarely people in them, maybe a scale figure or two. When you get to Troy’s photos, they’re bursting with people and with color." (2)


  1. We had the pleasure to interview Troy at his home in Wakefield, Rhode Island in July of 2015. He also generously shared photographs, sketches and drawings, some of which illustrate this article.
  2. Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo, and Rami el Samahy, Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2019), 353.

About the Authors

Rami el Samahy and Chris Grimley are principals at OverUnder, a Boston-based architecture & design studio. Together with Michael Kubo, they are co-authors of Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2019).

In Between Rivers: Pittsburgh's Modern Milieu is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MichiganHoustonLas VegasColorado, and Kansas. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Pittsburgh's Modern Milieu Part Six
A Path to Postmodern: The Abrams House, a Pittsburgh Legacy