Roundtable II: more from working architects
By Jana Eisenberg
Local architects Catherine Faust, Mehrdad Hadighi, Milenko Ivanovic, and Peter Murad all spoke with Spree for this discussion about the current state of regional architecture.
Faust is an independent architect whose recent projects include Toro and Nektar. She was educated at Hampshire College and the University at Buffalo.
Hadighi, forty-four, is an associate professor of architecture in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. His firm, Studio for Architecture, is also based in Buffalo. He was born in Iran and educated at Cornell and the University of Maryland. He has lived here for twelve years.
Ivanovic, twenty-eight, is a junior architect at Cannon Design. Born in Belgrade, Serbia, he came to Buffalo in 1999 to complete his studies at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture.
Murad, forty-four, is an architect and planner with Buffalo firm Architectural Resources. He grew up in Utica and began his studies at SUNY Purchase. He then came to Buffalo to complete his master’s at University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture. He has lived here for nineteen years.
We asked each of them the same questionsand we got not only different answers, but also sometimes answers to different questions. (Such circumlocutions are typical for architects.) Here are some of their comments:
Can you give us an example of a recent successful Buffalo project?
CF: It is hard to be positive or specific about recent projects, or lack thereof, because Buffalo is so cautious. A lot of newer projects are not new builds, but doing interesting things with existing buildings.
The city’s design review process is uneveneverybody is not on the same page. There are guidelines for commercial districts like Hertel and Elmwood. Most people have a desire to see pedestrian-friendly buildings that respond to street life, versus making some kind of monumental design statement. If the city thought these projects through a bit more, they would realize that you can do modern design and still contribute to the streetscape.
MH: I am less interested in saying “this is good, that’s bad,” than I am in a discussion about how good architecture comes about. It is a public process. Good architecture should be a basic right of everyone, not just an elite few. I believe that part of the architect’s role is to educate the public.
As an example, though, I will mention the Martin House Visitor’s Center. The people at the restoration and a few key Buffalo players decided that there was significance in Martin engaging Frank Lloyd Wright early in his career [and asked young architect Toshiko Mori to design the center]. Rather than simply say that Wright was God and we will always play second fiddle to him, they risked encouraging the emergence of new masters. Young people do important work. Everybody should be encouraged to think that they have the potential to be world class.
MI: The Hauptman-Woodward Medical Center is fairly important and interesting because of the thinking and care invested in the use of material and detailing. Also, the way that spaces are arranged in the building. It uses public and communal space in a different way: its work spaces are divided by an atrium that runs through the middle of the building, so the entry also becomes a gathering space. The exterior metal sheeting changes as the light changes. It is important for public buildings to have open space.
PM: One of the most impressive recent Buffalo projects is the Public Safety Building, completed by Cannon Design. It is very important architecturally for how it responds to the programmatic requirements, as well as how it serves its purpose as a building. It doesn’t mimic surrounding buildings, but answers zeitgeist about where we are in the twenty-first century. It’s an intelligent urban building that works very well. It’s a piece of art that plays with concepts architecturally and serves as a gateway to downtown. [See Barry Muskat’s report on this building]
What do you think of the public’s ambivalence toward modernism and post-modernism?
MH: I’m not actually convinced that there is public ambivalence. It has to do with us as a culture, what our relationship is with architecture. We are willing to support a ground-breaking project like the restoration of the Martin House. ... That same mindset should support contemporary buildings. Part of the job of architects, educators, city planners, and mayors is to illuminate that. It has to do with exploration, working in new territory, having public consciousness, working for public good; all wonderful things that we supposedly adhere to.
With things like computers or automobiles, people actually wait for and are willing to spend lots of money on new technology. But somehow architecture slips though the cracks. The way that the architecture business works is partly at fault. Problems with fee structures and funding push some architects to solutions which are more readily and inexpensively available. And each finished project sets the bar for the next one: whether precision and rigor or mediocrity drives it, that will be the expectation ...
MI: Buffalo has ambivalence to its own rich architectural history. I have reviewed Buffalo’s important buildings through a historical timeline; many of them were progressive and ambitious in their day. There is a growing public awareness that these monuments are valuable and necessary to maintain. Buffalo has the capacity to absorb so many different influences. By observing this history, we can think about continuing that heritagewanting to stay ambitious and progressive.
PM: The key here is education. Unless you are aware of the issue, you are not going to appreciate it. In the last twenty-five years or so, exposure to architecture and the arts has been decreasing. Professionals can get a degree without understanding liberal arts. When people are making decisions about who the architect should be, they may not even understand that an architect would be necessary at all.
Everyone should have at least a year of arts appreciation, including music, art, and architecture. The more people become educated, the more they are going to be open to the kind of exploration that we as a community should be welcoming.
What’s new and cool (homes, other ideas or projects), focusing on Buffalo and environs?
CF: The Elk Terminal Lofts are fun because they are reusing a different building type. I would like to see more of that. There is a lot of new construction downtown, but it feels pretty much like suburban development. I did enjoy Yazdani’s new building for Roswell, though it’s unfortunate that there’s a parking lot right in front of it. The building’s wonderful curved elevation, which needs to continue out into the landscape somehow, is instead fronted by cars. I feel that it is important that a building blend into or at least address the landscape.
MH: Buffalo has always had lots of “new and cool.” Because of its heavily engaged steel industry, Buffalo was a leader not only in production but also fabrication of steel. There are many amazing manufacturing shops that traditionally used saws to cut and shape steel, which now can be cut using computer numerically controlled (CNC) technology. This technology eliminates the back-and-forth between the shop and the architect and allows a more direct connection between the architect’s drawing and the final product. These new processes create new possibilities, and are changing the way that we actually make things.
MI: Toshiko Mori’s design for the Darwin Martin House Visitor’s Center has a modern edge, but mimics Frank Lloyd Wright in an abstract manner. There is a sense of history and tradition, but there are modern elements as well. She abstracted and mirrored the prairie roof. She kept the Visitor’s House low and streamlined, echoing Wright’s shapes and vocabulary from that period, but her use of material and detailing is very contemporary.
PM: Buffalo is great for so many reasons. Everyone knows that Buffalo was the cat’s ass at the turn of the century. People came here to see new technology. Commerce was booming. We were part of a greater geographic reality, which is still who we are now. We are on an international border; Toronto is a stone’s throw away. Maybe the public should look at what is happening there, and ask ourselves how can we make some of that happen here.
Many people believe that restaurant design reflects trends in architecture. Can you talk about current, recent, future restaurant design that you may be aware ofwhat is important about these projects, and why?
MI: In Buffalo, restaurants are used to invigorate parts of the city, but it doesn’t always work. Restaurants do not have that capability on an urban scale; they are transitory, temporary. They do not have the type of significance to change the city. Restaurants are experiential, social things that can emerge and disappear.
PM: We must go beyond a Disney approach, to context in the area. Elmwood Avenue is ready for contemporary buildings, to explore mixed-use structures.
Brad Wales’ work on the Spot Coffee/New World Record building is very contextual. The materials are all traditional, but they are done in contemporary ways. He references tradition, but creates twists in use. Then there is the bigger picture of how it fits in: it adjoins Brodo, and is the same height as Blockbuster. Then, as it moves south, it grows, and gracefully tries to connect to higher buildings. It is not by chance that Spot’s patio is on the south side. In January and February the sun hits the masonry, giving off heat. It creates a wonderful place to be.
Jana Eisenberg is a freelance writer specializing in the arts. She contributes to Spree and the Buffalo News.
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