Every city needs a Franklin Toker, an informed observer of the buildings around us—the needs and ambitions that forged them, their relationship to the wider world of architecture, and the revealing details in craft or ornament that give each building its own particular character. A longtime professor of the history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, Toker published Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait in 1986. A second edition appeared in 1994.
The book is divided into seven chapters, with each chapter including three to seven subsections on particular neighborhoods. Toker starts, reasonably, at the Point, the confluence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers and the site of eighteenth century settlements by the French (as Fort Duquesne) and the British (as Fort Pitt). Our genial guide lingers there to contemplate this unique geographical nexus before heading off around the Golden Triangle and onward to Oakland, the South Side, the North Side, and beyond. He observes the buildings in front of him, referring to buildings that no longer survive and, on occasion, to buildings that were still in the design phase in the mid-1980s.
The most cherished guide books have a voice that allows readers to feel like they are being ushered by an empathetic expert. What comes across in Toker’s writing is an understanding of the urban structure of the city paired with his insight into multiple aspects of buildings that we think we know, or that we have somehow overlooked. He is alert to minor as well as major works, and open to obscure as well as famous architects.
In tracing Toker’s footsteps through his chapter on the Golden Triangle in 2020, a few buildings have disappeared and there are, inevitably, new buildings to admire. Here are some recent images of buildings and spaces that caught the good professor’s attention back in the 1980s and a sampling of his unique critical commentary.