During a recent meeting in the auditorium of the Central Library, Buffalo’s leading preservationists took to the stage, inhaled deeply and declared their love for a collection of unlovable buildings.
The Shoreline Apartments, a half-realized urban development designed by the great modernist architect Paul Rudolph and completed in 1972, are in danger. Their owner, Norstar Development USA, has announced plans to raze five of the concrete townhouses and replace them with 48 new apartment units.
During the two-hour meeting, part of an official review process by the state Historic Preservation Office, preservation officials gave a detailed history of the complex and a summary of existing modernist architecture that is quickly becoming a chief concern of preservationists across the United States.
Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, kicked off the talk with a tour through some of Buffalo’s most important pieces of modernist architecture. These include Minoru Yamasaki’s One M&T Plaza, the Tishman Building on Lafayette Square and Rudolph’s disfigured Niagara Falls Public Library.
Yots said he falls in love easily with buildings, and that Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments earned his affection immediately. The same went for Buffalo architect and national preservation advocate Barbara Campagna, who made an enthusiastic argument for the importance of Rudolph’s apartments and said that lately she finds herself “loving more and more of the modern architecture in Buffalo.”
The meeting was the latest example of how the preservation mind-set is quickly evolving, as buildings that the public has little or no love for become the objects of preservation campaigns. Buildings that were constructed in the 1960s now qualify for inclusion on the state and national registers of historic places, a qualification that helps to ensure their permanence and opens the door for significant tax credits.
This means preservationists whose commitment to the movement was forged by their love for Victorian or art deco architecture are now faced with the difficult proposition of learning to love the much-maligned buildings of the Brutalist era.
Brutalism, the unfortunate name for a style of architecture that flourished in the mid-20th century and gave us buildings like the hulking Buffalo City Court and the concrete headquarters of this newspaper, has a bad rap.
Some critics of the form merely find it ugly and uninviting, while others view many public buildings in the Brutalist style as the embodiment of a troubling tendency toward authoritarianism or evocative of oppressive, Soviet-style design.
The reality is a great deal more complicated, of course. As Campagna demonstrated in her talk, the development of Brutalism and the so-called “International Style” owes at least something to Buffalo’s concrete grain elevators, which inspired proto-starchitects like Le Corbusier to create their own utilitarian concrete structures.
Many of Rudolph’s buildings, some of which have fallen into disrepair like the Shoreline Apartments, are magnificent and innovative structures that have merely passed out of fashion. (Buffalo-born artist Chris Mottalini has made something of a career out of photographing abandoned Rudolph buildings, some of which are compiled in the book “After You Left / They Took It Apart: Demolished Paul Rudolph Homes.”)
But the Shoreline Apartments, the very definition of an idealistic low-income housing development that crashed hard upon the rocks of reality immediately after its completion, does not strike me as one of Rudolph’s best efforts. His original plan for the complex was like a mid-century urban utopia and it was appropriately featured in a 1970 exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art.
The reality of the complex, cut off from downtown by Niagara Street and from the waterfront by the screaming Niagara Thruway, was much more dire. It never came close to Rudolph’s vision. Bridges linking the complex to the waterfront were never built. Common spaces were underutilized or abandoned.
While it’s true that the buildings have important architectural features and rank as Rudolph’s only contribution to downtown Buffalo, they stand more as a monument to the failure of mid-century urban renewal than to the architect’s proven genius.
In the purely artistic sense, they’re worth preserving. In the practical sense, they’re the dilapidated relics of a failed policy.
It’s tough to muster a lot of love for buildings like that.