Another in our wide-ranging series featuring people, places, and things that we feel may be of interest to our readers
    Imani Christian Academy

    Imani Christian Academy

    In 1972 David Nilsson reported on a new city school, writing in the Pittsburgh Press: “A building is a box, but it can be much more. Architect Tasso Katselas, who designed the new East Hills Elementary School, believes a building can change the way people think and how they act. He thinks a school building in particular can be part of the teaching process … and that’s exactly what he has tried to do with the East Hills school, which opens next month as the first open-plan school in the city. A variegated structure of brick, glass, and concrete, the school is a mixture of open spaces and private corners of stark geometric forms and indoor gardens.”

    To visit this permanently viable architectural wonder, let’s take a short trip. Drive down Penn Avenue and you will pass the former Nabisco Plant, now known as Bakery Square. A Google flag sits atop the original brick façade, signifying its new occupant. If you continue down Penn and cross Fifth Avenue, you enter a residential corridor of homes that leads directly into what was once Wilkinsburg’s thriving business district. A series of left turns takes you up Robinson Boulevard, next through a public-housing development (note the pastel-colored, clustered townhomes), and then onto East Hills Drive. There, as the road rises ahead of you, make a quick left into a hollow—a space easy to pass and too easily missed. You will notice a structure the likes of which you most likely have never seen before.

    Imani Christian Academy

    The building is a gift of modern architecture—a marvel of concrete columns and spans, complemented by formidable weaves of earth-tone masonry. Historically this imposing form is referred to as Brutalism (from the French beton brut, meaning raw concrete), but there has been an effort to rebrand this domineering and stark style as “Heroic.” Indeed, once inside you understand why.

    Enter the cavernous open-concept building, and you are drawn in by the expansive entry, the beams of natural light filtering through skylights, and the atrium of living plants that extends from a lower level and is visible upon entry. And is that the sound of water? Peer over the curved concrete half-wall and a plume of water proceeding from a fountain greets you with a giggle. Heroic, marvelous, and splendid.

    Designed in 1972 by famed Pittsburgh architect Tasso Katselas, the building served as the East Hills Elementary School for 34 years before being shuttered for a period of four years. In 2010, Imani Christian Academy acquired the building for its school. Its concrete ramps, cheerful skylights, expansive windows, and confidently courageous form now serve as the home for students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

    Imani is a faith-based school serving an average of 145 students annually. Students hail from Wilkinsburg, Penn Hills, Woodland Hills, and East Pittsburgh, some of the most economically challenged zip codes in and around the City of Pittsburgh. Imani students are 98 percent African American, with a majority raised in single-parent homes. Despite the many challenges they face, they come to school every day, and for many, this building is their second home.

    Imani Christian Academy

    The school takes pride in the quality of education it provides to its students. Part of that pride is reflected in the care and maintenance of this unique example of modern architecture. At Imani, we believe that environment shapes behavior. The ability to welcome students, families, staff, and teachers to an exceptional building is an integral part of what Imani does.

    The building itself teaches its own lessons. The open-concept design helps students and faculty think big about their dreams and aspirations. The natural light that courses through the skylights, sky-story, and floor-to-ceiling windows provides a unique sense of wellbeing and joy. The fountain, an element usually associated with privilege and luxury, reminds students that they too are worthy of the best.

    The building is solid. Its concrete and masonry speak of safety and protection in a world that seems increasingly threatening. The building looks and feels like it could withstand anything. And so, the building’s indomitable nature manifests the indomitable spirit of the African American experience. Like the building itself, the students, their families, and their ancestors have endured a great deal but remain unwilling to surrender to forces of inequality and discrimination.

    It is extraordinary that Imani owns this exceptional building. Its architectural value, suitability as a home for a school, and inspiring beauty are unparalleled. This is why it is imperative that the property is well maintained. Like other important works of art, this structure requires committed attention guided by a recognition of its unique characteristics.

    Imani Christian Academy

    Its particular style demands that skylights are repaired or replaced to preserve the majesty of natural light as it cascades through the roof. The large window openings should likewise be preserved. This may require re-glazing, glass replacement, and sometimes the replacement of frame and glass together—all to allow the outside and inside to seamlessly merge. Over time, the earth-toned brick requires repointing to prevent water infiltration and retain the fortified appearance of the edifice. Respectfully, all of these efforts are preferred to the cost-saving but design-thwarting alternatives of covering up the skylights, bricking up windows, and stuccoing exterior facades. These examples give voice to a clear intent: to preserve the unique qualities of this building, to honor the architectural style, and to respect the vision of this venerated architect.

    By engaging local and relevant historians, preservationists, and project managers along with the Imani’s community, staff, and leadership, an exchange has been kindled regarding viable steps to sustain this structure. This process begins with sharing content and educating our network, but it does not end there. Rather, the process continues, as this phenomenal structure brings us closer together as people and continues to bless the community it was created to serve.

    To join in this effort, contact Paulo Nzambi at pnzambi@imanichristianacademy.org. If you wish to contribute to the maintenance of the building, please contact Barbara Nicholas, director of development at Imani Christian Academy. She can be reached at bnicholas@imaniadmin.org.

    Architect Tasso Katselas Comments On His Design for the East Hills Elementary School

    Tasso Katselas

    Tasso Katselas

    The East Hills “Magnet School” is one of my favorite projects. Even though it is no longer a public school, it is now a “Christian Academy”—Imani—with a lively student body. The spirit of the place endures and lives through the lives of the students, nurtured by the creative teaching and social environment.

    There are no steps in the school. Circulation is a ramp system that knits together a series of “instructional pods.” These teaching pods with moveable units allow teachers to offer a variety of instructional enclosures. The flexibility becomes a family of built forms that interact, each supporting the other. Separate library, physical-education, and social-gathering spaces spin off a center garden inspired by Aristotle’s statement, “Nature holds a reverence for life’s iconic qualities.”

    My aim was to create a place of fundamental learning, where curiosity flourished, where dreams were encouraged, where minds were exposed to art, and beauty and truth woven into the fabric of the students’ growth.

    My recent visit where I was surrounded by happy students and teachers was tempered by the need for maintenance funds to help preserve the joy of learning.

    Paulo Nzambi is a former trial lawyer, real estate entrepreneur, poet, and playwright. He is currently the CEO and head of school at Imani Christian Academy. Mr. Nzambi lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and three children. A more extensive version of the above article was originally published in 2021 at Docomomo.com.
    Photos by Amy Fisher, Pawsburgh Photography