On the first day of one of my first reporting jobs out of college, for a tiny newspaper in southern Louisiana, I came across the ugliest municipal building I have ever seen.
The gigantic chunk of dirty grey concrete in otherwise beautiful downtown Houma, La., looked like the result of CAD software gone haywire. It housed the Terrebone Parish Consolidated Government, a fact illustrated the by absurdly large blue block letters spelling out the generic phrase “GOVERNMENT TOWER” on its Kafkaesque facade. The building did not belong anywhere near the snaking bayous of Louisiana, allowed practically no street-level interaction and seemed purposely designed to add a layer of dystopian anxiety to the lives of city residents.
I found out later that the structure had previously belonged to a bank, which was said to have ordered it from a catalog, probably thinking that this was a great way to save money on beauty and architects. It was, in fact, an affront to the culture of the city and the daily experience of its citizens.
In Buffalo, where astoundingly great architecture is part of our city’s heritage and daily experience, several new or renovated buildings that seem to have been ordered from catalogs are slowly coming into view.
Two particularly glaring examples are the re-skinned former Donovan building and rising behemoth known as HarborCenter near the waterfront, both of which look like your nearest suburban Walgreens on architectural steroids. Except that your nearest suburban Walgreens is actually more inviting to pedestrians.
The proposed new headquarters for the Delaware North Companies at Delaware Avenue and Chippewa Street eschews the red brick walls for gleaming glass ones, but otherwise makes no attempt to distinguish itself from any building on any street corner in Toronto.
There is nothing unforgivably oppressive about these buildings. In fact, they seem purposely designed to be merely inoffensive, to appeal to no particular aesthetic taste out of a desire not to upset anyone. But what some of them conspicuously lack, especially near the waterfront, is a smart way of opening themselves up to pedestrians at the street level and integrating themselves into their surroundings – a built-in symptom of their suburban provenance.
“If the street level can be made to be vital and exciting, the rest of it is frankly less of an issue,” said Robert Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. “But if you’ve got, let’s just for the lack of a better word call it an ordinary building, and you haven’t activated the street-front, then you’ve killed the street.”
Shibley was hesitant to be critical about the specifics of any new designs, pointing instead to successful adaptive reuse projects at the Lafayette Hotel, the Hampton Inn at Delaware and Chippewa, the Granite Works on Main Street and Elk Terminal farther downtown as examples of smart architecture done right without breaking the bank.
He also talked about the new crop of thoughtful buildings arising on the University at Buffalo’s growing medical campus, with many more on the way. These include the gorgeous Gates Vascular Institute, Hauptman-Woodward Institute, the forthcoming UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and many other structures that consciously contribute to the accelerating rhythms of the surrounding city.
Where buildings or reuse projects like the Donovan Building are concerned, an easy cop-out is that budget limitations don’t always support bold architectural statements. But in many cases, appealing and responsible architecture is less about money than it is about will.
“This is about not letting finances determine or define what you consider to be quality architecture,” Shibley said. “There are so many things we can do on the low-cost side that are still interesting and intellectually contribute to the culture of architecture and our understanding of architecture in our community.”
It’s a kind of fallacy, in other words, that great architecture can only be achieved at exorbitant prices. Sure, that’s true if you’re talking about starchitects like Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava. But Buffalo’s emerging identity is about grass-roots innovation, about making something beautiful out of not much raw material.
There are plenty of promising experiments along those lines from members of UB’s architecture department and others. It would behoove some of our local developers to pay more attention to those efforts before inflicting our streetscape with more Target-style design.
For the first time in a very long time, Buffalo has an opportunity to infuse the historic character of its streetscape with architecture that makes a statement and reinvigorates the empty streets of a long-dormant downtown core.
It’s great to see cranes in the air on the waterfront. But in a city acclaimed worldwide for its innovative and historic architecture, we can do a lot better.