Pittsburgh, USA: The Cathedral of Learning

England Room (1)

My eight months in Pittsburgh, 2015, are a bit blurry, framed between crystal clear memories of returning from South America in April, and then moving back to California in December. Pittsburgh was a rocky chapter at best but one of the most inspiring days was spent exploring the Cathedral of Learning located on the University of Pittsburgh campus. However, the day in the cathedral in 2015 was also the day I learned one of my closest friends in northern California had died. I distinctly remember hearing the voicemail while climbing the stairway to the third floor. I wanted to revisit the Cathedral to both honor the memory of my friend, and also to reconnect with what continues to be a very beautiful space.

Cathedral of Learning
At 42-stories, the Cathedral of Learning is the tallest academic building in the western hemisphere.

The Cathedral was commissioned after WWI under direction from Dr. Bowman, the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor. Dr. Bowman wanted to develop a university that would welcome, embrace, and represent the diversity of the student population, many of whom were children to the first-generation immigrants in the steel mills and coal mines. The Cathedral of Learning was his gift to that vision. At forty-two floors, the Cathedral is the tallest educational building in the Western hemisphere. 

Inside the Cathedral
The interior, designed in Late Gothic Revival under the influence of Art Deco.

His administration formed community committees to study the history, art, religion, philosophy, and customs of nineteen nationalities in representation. The entire course of the project took thirty years, crawling through the challenges of the Great Depression, the rise of Facism in Europe, and finally the second world war. Each installation was painstakingly designed and built using artifacts and materials from the nation it represented, with the final of the nineteen finally completed in 1957. Each of the original nineteen rooms includes a leather-bound volume which outlines the social, political, and cultural dramas that unfolded during the thirty-year period of the project history.

In 1987, more rooms were added and today thirty rooms that represent cultural traditions from around the world are still perfectly preserved. The Cathedral of Learning also has space for students to gather, study, rest, explore, and drink coffee. Visitors are allowed and even encouraged. The original rooms are located on the first floor, and many of the second generation rooms are on the third floor. During my first visit in December, 2015, the rooms were decorated for Christmas. I thought it was fitting that on this second visit, they were again decorated for the holidays. 

Hungary Room
Christmas decorations in the Hungary room.

While so much in my life has shifted in three years, I looped back again through the same space. The friend was the one who had taught me about the dual movement of time, from the past into the future, and also from the future into the past. What we understand about our lives in a given moment are a representation of a reflected yesterday, and a projected tomorrow. I have come to believe that when we choose to live a life of peace in the moment, we are healing both our past and our future. As I watched students diligently soaking information from textbooks in the open corridor, I breathed a sigh of relief. During this visit to the Cathedral, none of my friends died.

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