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Brad Wales: Performative architecture

Nancy J. Parisi

Architect, artist, and designer Brad Wales grew up in northern New Jersey, which he likens to Western New York’s Boston Hills with plenty of verdant farmland and skiing. He pronounces beautiful as “beauty-full,” a word he seems to relish.

Spree interviewed Brad Wales at the 18th Street Park on Buffalo’s West Side, next to the Urban Roots garden center. The park is in the process of being landscaped and features a prominent work-in-progress: an artful gate of spaced concrete vertical slats that are mirrored on the ground with similarly designed sculptural seating. The concrete is hand-hammered, each slat a unique object that works as a transparent divider between Urban Roots and the park.

Wales, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, has been collaboratively designing and creating this project for the past four years with approximately 150 of his students. Together, they have already completed several other such projects throughout the city. “My students are great,” he says. “They have a thirst for building—they’re monster workers. They take three studio [classes] in a row; this is their big class.”

He describes the 18th Street Park as a “unity project,” one that benefits the neighborhood and serves as a functional addition for the operations at Urban Roots. The concrete slats of the fence he describes as “totems,” each featuring unique, inlaid ceramic tiles created in conjunction with Buffalo ceramic artist Nancy Gabriel. The project has also received major support from local companies Great Lakes Concrete and Alp Steel.

Wales advises on various aspects of the project, like the pairing of certain tiles and, later, how to pack up the tiles yet to be installed for the night. Each of the pieces, he explains, is a solitary object to be placed in a row creating a “provocative, intellectual position—these stand-alone objects become a semi-intentional narrative.”

Since his college years Wales has also created stage productions, including storylines, lighting, staging, and video projections. At Gallery 164, the ground floor of his Allen Street home, he and wife Beth Elkins Wales co-produce multifaceted performances of the Nimbus dance company.

“It all dovetails with what I do with architecture,” Wales explains. “It’s a matrix; it intertwines. I think of architecture as being performative. A building performs; it’s a stage set for performances of life—anybody with a second floor porch has balcony seating for street theater.” Wales’s next theatrical project—designing and building enormous steel screens for a performance by the Reactionary Ensemble featuring members of Nimbus—will be presented on December 8 at Babeville as part of Beyond/In WNY.

“Ninety-three percent of people hate their jobs, but I ended up doing what I love to do—this is it,” Wales says. “The great thing about what I do is that every project is different. While some architectural projects are fine staying theoretical, the great part is in seeing something all the way through to its completion.”

What is your favorite building in WNY?
Believe it or not, I think it must be City Hall—the lobby is amazing. And the Council Chambers are awesome. Second would be the Central Terminal. Although it really needs to be re-inhabited in its original location, architecturally, it would be great if the Central Terminal could be moved downtown to be our central multi-modal transportation hub, and the two buildings, City Hall and the Central Terminal, could be seen in the same skyline.

What is your dream project?
My dream project would be to coordinate the redesign of Buffalo so that all the streets basically run to the waterfront.
In any great waterfront city, the street grid generally runs right to the water’s edge, as is the case in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Venice, Rome, and Barcelona. Incredibly, this can’t-miss urban design strategy is really not even in the public dialogue about our waterfront.
Historically, in Buffalo, it’s not just the architecture of Wright, Sullivan, and Richardson, and the landscape work of Olmsted, but the actual plan of the city that is world class. If we have something that is amongst the best in the world, why shouldn’t we actively enhance it?

Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: hate it, or love it?
I remember The Fountainhead as so over-the-top-ridiculous at times, with excruciatingly long and dull philosophical passages at the end. But I love that the architect, Howard Roark, has so much integrity that he actually blows up a building he designed that was not being built to his drawings. That’s definitely over-the-top.
It is distressing that there is so much schlock being put up by architects for various reasons, most of which stems from either lack of integrity or a watered-down historicist approach. Both of these are themes in The Fountainhead.

Which architect do you most admire?
Antoni Gaudí. He was a Catalan architect from around the turn of the century who was light years ahead of the profession. Almost all of his buildings employed passive solar shading and extensive, innovative natural ventilation. Although not usually credited as such, he was perhaps the first architect to use a modern column grid and curtain wall—although the curtain wall did support itself at Casa Mila. He was also a spot-on structural engineering genius as well as a green civil engineer.
At Parc Guell, Barcelona’s city-wide park, he cut the top off a sparsely vegetated hill and reused the stone to build the plaza overlooking the city. In the resulting design, he naturally irrigated the land that is now lushly planted.
And, although rarely credited as such, he also predated the use of assemblage sculpture, such as that of David Smith, with his scrap metal railings at Casa Mila. His life and work are the very definition of authenticity, as he chose to hunker down in Barcelona and just get to work—all his projects except one are in Catalonia. I believe that he greatly influenced Le Corbusier, for example, in creating a rooftop landscape in the Unite d’Habitation in Marseille, as compared with Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, and Casa Mila. Gaudí had an amazing sense of mixing very fine elements such as tile work with brutal stone and steel compositions, a practice that I believe was picked up by both Corbusier and Carlo Scarpa.
There are small tributes to Gaudí in a couple of my projects: the smashed tile in the mortar joints at the Pilates Loft, and SPoT Coffee, which I saw in Gaudí’s famous Dragon Gate in Barcelona, as well as some of the structural moves in the 18th Street Park, and in the deck at Gallery 164.


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