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Long Story Short: When armchair architects attack

4/22/19



The new building planned for the north side of the campus

Courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery

 

Architecture wars

On April 18, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG) released its latest, and likely final design for its AK360 Campus and development Expansion Project. Long Story Short covered the announcement last week, and the article was shared on the Spree and Design Block Facebook pages, prompting extended commentary (101 comments and counting on Design Block). The back and forth prompted me to reflect on my own views regarding architectural development in Buffalo, and the AKAG project specifically.

 

Here are those reflections

I generally identify with preservationists over demolish-and-build-big developers. But I can’t ever recall seeing a development proposal on social media that wasn’t near-universally panned, leading me to wonder if the public can ever be satisfied.

 

A common complaint is that a design doesn’t fit with existing architecture. If Facebook existed at the turn of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House, H. H. Richardson’s Buffalo State Hospital, and Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building would likely have received the same reaction. All differed radically from the surrounding architecture.

 

The truth is, most architecture is not particularly inspired. We celebrate the exceptions in history books, but most developers are after profitability, not greatness. I suspect some local mediocrity can be attributed to architects’ reluctance to be too innovative, out of fear of public response. Bland beats inspired in the battle for consensus.

 

AK360

I find it difficult to judge architecture from drawings alone, which is why I defer to the experts. In this case, that includes preservation consulting firms Preservation Studios and PBMW, the New York's State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and a subcommittee of the Buffalo Preservation Board, all of which worked with the AKAG. The architect, Shohei Shigematsu, of OMA, has designed buildings for the Quebec National Beaux Arts Museum and the Faena Arts Center in Miami, among others. Is he capable of mistakes? Sure, I imagine. But despite being a trained artist, I don’t pretend to know more than someone who’s devoted his life to his field. I’m hopeful that when the job is done, the new building will overcome the doubters and detractors, like Frank Gehry or Philip Johnson eventually did in their time. But I don’t know.  

 

What I do know is that no matter what was proposed, it would have vocal detractors. Some would object to its height. Others might say it’s lackluster or maybe too radical. Some would find it overly intrusive or too incompatible. Placement was a big topic for online critics, who seem to think the architects, preservationists, and AKAG staff failed to consider every possible location.

 

Subjective taste

A few artists I know occasionally visit the Cleveland Museum of Art, which, like the AKAG, has a neoclassical building with a modern addition. The group always admires the huge glass-roofed atrium that connects the two. We experience a bit of awe when entering it. I mentioned this once on social media, and a local architect said he found it uninspiring. It all comes down to taste.

 

The Bunshaft “roof”

Looking at the drawings for Common Sky—the artwork proposed by Icelandic artist Ólafur Eliasson, which will serve as a roof for the Bunshaft courtyard—I’m pretty sure I like it a lot. Eliasson is no neophyte. He’s designed numerous major projects around the world and runs Studio Ólafur Eliasson, comprising over 100 team members, including craftsmen, architects, archivists, researchers, administrators, programmers, art historians, and specialized technicians. This proposed addition to the Bunshaft courtyard, is similar to the multi-story glass Hotel Henry entrance attached to Richardson’s Psychiatric Center, in that it’s an add-on to a historical building that makes it more useful.  

 

What’s the verdict overall?

Putting aside my uncertainty at judging architecture from drawings, I’ll admit I’m not terribly excited by the current planned addition. It’ll do. It’s a compromise after all, designed to satisfy the Secretary of the Interior’s exacting standards for historic preservation. It will be concealed by trees from the neighbors’ sightlines, suggesting that pacification was top priority all around. Appeasing all parties added a year and a half to the project. So why am I willing to settle for something less than inspiring? Because I want to see it finished in my lifetime.

 

A parable

Readers will recall that around the turn of the twenty-first century, there was a much-discussed plan to build a signature Peace Bridge. I longed to see a majestic span between Canada and the US, symbolizing Buffalo’s importance as a trade and tourist gateway. But all the design ideas—spectacular as some were—had detractors. Some worried about birds. Some about pollution. Some wanted a companion bridge; some didn’t. In the end, we debated the idea to death.

 

One commenter on my story last week suggested getting public input on the AKAG plan, then designing something “really great.” Aside from the fact that the public was consulted and surveyed throughout the process (most recently on March 10), whatever design another round of public input would produce, would, inevitably, be roundly criticized. And we’d be back here again, with calls to go back and get it right, and before you know it—Peace Bridge.

 

What matters most

Each of us has his or her personal priority. Mine is getting more space for exhibiting the museum’s growing internationally renowned collection. I would love to get an architectural masterpiece in the bargain, but I’ll settle for a compromise design, rather than debate it for another decade.

 

Finally

At a Preservation Board meeting last Thursday the proposal was tabled for another month because two members had concerns about compatibility with the existing buildings. Michael Lynch of SHPO said they will approve the design when the gallery completes required archaeological work. The Planning Board wants a letter to that effect. Then it’s expected to be approved.

 

With any luck, ceremonial shovels will soon follow.

 

 

Nowhere man

A couple weeks ago, Rep. Chris Collins said he is unsure whether he will run for a fifth term. Now maybe we know why. It looks like the cost of reelection for the indicted multimillionaire Congressman might be on him.

 

The details:

In the first quarter of the 2018 election cycle, Collins raised roughly $280,000, much of it from wealthy supporters. This quarter, the number of human beings donating to his campaign was a big fat zero. According to Federal Election Commission filings, Collins only raised $5000 from two political action committees and the campaign committee of former colleague Dan Donovan.

 

This $5000, plus funds remaining from his 2018 reelection campaign, went to lawyers and campaign consultants. Collins also reported three expenditures for fundraising events in January and February, which must have been sad, since they apparently raised zero dollars. Collins war chest stands at $167,000, not much for a campaign.

 

 

Buffalo is cooking

A few weeks back, LSS published an article lamenting President Trump’s reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the country—and therefore, into Buffalo. In a related story we alluded to a recent national article praising Buffalo as one of 15 American Cities That Secretly Have Great Food Scenes.

 

How the two things are related

Thrillist online magazine includes Buffalo—along with cities like San Diego, Santa Fe, Honolulu, and Tampa—as a city with surprising culinary excellence. The subtitle for the Buffalo section was, Legacy restaurants coexist with new international flavors. After mentioning some of the usual suspects—Chef’s, Toutant, Ted’s—they discuss German, Polish, Italian, and Irish immigrants, who contributed to Buffalo’s food diversity at the turn of the twentieth-century. Anyone visiting the Broadway Market during the Easter season experienced the influence of these countries.

 

The Thrillist article went on to say, “But for modern Asian and South American cuisine, head for the West Side Bazaar and gorge on donburi bowls at Thang’s Family Restaurant, the pernil combo at Kiosko Latino, and mutee soup at Rakhapura.”

 

The takeaway:

Buffalo’s newest refugee population brings with them fresh cultural influences, making us a richer, stronger, and more diversified city—with a great food scene.   

 

 

Profile in dumbness

As young boys, my oldest friend and I were escorted on regular trips to Crystal Beach, Ontario by his mother. Sometimes we would bring back fireworks. My friend’s mother never seemed to worry about problems at the border. She was a middle-aged white woman accompanied by two kids, and though the term wasn’t in use then, the woman intuitively understood that she was privileged.

 

The opposite of privilege

Of course, certain people, then and now, draw greater suspicion from authorities. And you know who would be right up there in the drawing-more-suspicion category? Three young black men in a Cadillac Escalade, followed by a Porsche containing three more black men. This is even truer if one of the men is a noted rapper with a notable rap sheet and a face festooned with tattoos, sporting Black Bart Simpson hair. These people know—or should know—that they have the opposite of white privilege. Call it gangsta disprivilege, or call it profiling. It’s fatuous not to recognize this.

 

So, what were rapper Kodak Black and his friends thinking when they tried to cross the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge with a stash of cannabis and illegal guns, including an AK-style handgun with a thirty-round magazine? The U.S. Border and Customs Protection is not impressed with rap star fame; they might actually be the opposite of impressed.

 

Bill Kapri (Black’s real name) and his crew were arrested Wednesday and charged with various weapon and drug crimes. Black was released on $20,000 cash bond. You have to give the guy credit for staying in character though. He’s been photographed often flashing a fan of cash, which turns out to have a practical use. During his perp walk from jail, Black shielded his face with an impressive fan of $100 bills.

 

The takeaway:

If you want to transport guns and drugs over the U.S./Canadian border, recruit a middle-aged white woman driving with kids.

 

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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