When the sun sets on Silo City, casting an Instagram-friendly glow over the mammoth concrete grain elevators that dot the complex, a towering new metal sculpture at the edge of the site comes shimmering to life.
The curved wall, made from remarkably thin sheets of stainless steel and resembling nothing so much as a set piece from the latest “Transformers” movie, was completed this week by professors and students from the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning.
At 19 feet wide and about 20 feet tall, the self-supporting wall uses folded pieces of rigidized steel to catch the setting sun and deflect the relentless winds blowing off Lake Erie. It is the latest product of an ongoing collaboration between UB’s architecture school and the Buffalo company Rigidized Metals. The company’s CEO, Rick Smith, has fostered the transition of his Silo City complex from a post-industrial wasteland into a laboratory for art, architecture and culture.
On a recent afternoon, Smith and UB architecture assistant professors Christopher Romano and Nicholas Bruscia met at the site to talk about the project. Though it wouldn’t reach its full height until later in the day, the sculpture was already an impressive sight, a sharp flash of silver interrupting an otherwise ruddy landscape of overgrown weeds and century-old concrete silos.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the structure, a particularly alluring architectural experiment, is the fact that it lacks any heavy steel supports. That’s because sheets of metal used to build the wall have been “rigidized,” or embossed with patterns that can imbue the material, Wolverine-like, with more than twice its original strength and resistance.
The wall’s use of rigidized metal, some variation of which you probably saw the last time you glanced down at an elevator floor, means something extraordinary in architectural terms: A 20-foot-tall structure made of sheets a little thicker than a piece of construction paper can stand up against gravity, and against Buffalo’s harsh elements, all by itself.
“A sheet at this thickness that doesn’t have this kind of pattern embossed into it can bend really easily,” Bruscia explained as he pointed at one of the triangular folds of the wall. “Because this is embossed into it and it’s three-dimensional, it just resists bending. Because of that it can carry loads better.”
Even so, the fact that the sculpture would work out as well or rise as quickly as it did was never guaranteed. Asked about the biggest surprise in the process, which has taken more than a year from concept to execution, Romano responded, only partially in jest, “It’s still standing.”
The wall is an evolution of a previous architecture project on the Silo City site featuring a tall metal beehive structure that was constructed there last summer. That project, which used rigidized steel cladding on its exterior but a traditional heavy support structure that is holding up poorly, prompted Romano and Bruscia to think about new ways to use Smith’s raw materials. The UB architecture school has also forged a partnership with the local company Boston Valley Terra Cotta.
“The big shift from that was removing the structural frame, which is having all kinds of problems, rusting, requiring all kinds of maintenance and these kinds of things,” Romano said. “The thing itself is the structure. That’s the architectural argument.”
For Smith, whose grandfather founded Rigidized Metals in 1940 primarily to sell metal to manufacturers seeking to build lighter-weight aircraft, the project represents an ideal symbiosis between business and academia.
“In the corporate environment, these guys don’t get to play with different shapes or forms or anything,” Smith said. “Whereas what the UB gang does for companies like Rigidized is really inject that innovative sort of creative method of looking at things that we don’t have the technical expertise to do.”
Smith said that the way the wall experiments with the material could open up an entirely new way of thinking about potential uses for his company’s products.
“With the folding and the geometric design, to withstand and become structure, that’s the big leap forward,” he said. “That’s why it’s really important for us to think about these things.”
There is also a kind of inescapable poetry about the project’s proximity to Buffalo’s hulking grain elevators, which themselves influenced an entire school of modernist architecture that this project is in some ways reacting to.
For UB architecture graduate student Daniel Vrana, who worked on the project along with fellow student Phil Gusmano and his professors, the project provided an all-too-rare opportunity to get out of the studio and work on a real-world project. The fact that the sculpture was installed at buzz-worthy Silo City, he said, was an added bonus.
“It’s an especially interesting site, in that the silos attract sort of the art crowd, architects, things like that, but then you also have the industrial sector here,” he said. “So you’re getting exposure that I don’t think you would get elsewhere. To me, that’s sort of amazing.”