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A sideways object lesson on South Putnam
By Elizabeth Licata

With a horizontal sidle, a vertical ascent, and semicircular ninety-degree spin, the front of a house does what no house façade was ever meant to do. It moves: elegantly, absurdly, independently of its supporting frame, and ends up facing sideways—the roof’s triangular peak pointing north down the street. Would anyone else in Buffalo even imagine creating such a phenomenon except architect Brad Wales and his supporting cast of architects-in-training?

I doubt it. This house at 15 South Putnam Street on the West Side was destined for the wrecking ball (indeed, there may still be a demolition in its future) when Wales and fellow architect Frank Fantauzzi targeted it for a hand-on deconstruction exercise for their students. They had been looking for a suitable subject for a while, and planned to take the house apart in a systematic, artistic manner. This would be a great opportunity for the students, and they’d be doing the homeowner and the city of Buffalo a favor by saving them the demolition costs.

But the house project soon developed into an even more unusual process of reclamation; the team managed to stabilize and save the house, at the same time achieving their original goal of turning it into an art project. They gutted the interior and opened up the floors so that each was visible from any level; instead of the usual nineteenth-century warren of smallish spaces that one would see in a modest wood-frame Victorian like this, there is an open plan with all the supporting structures exposed. The functional, simplified look throughout is an embodiment of the sleek, contemporary design many architects working today favor—once the bones get filled in with walls, finished floors, tile, and whatever other materials are needed.

It is unclear whether that will ever happen; the house is back in the hands of the owner now, and there is still much work to be done.

But whatever happens in the future, the accomplishment of the UB team is still magnificent; on May 5, 2007, the façade of the house moved on its steel track and was spun around, eventually being welded into place into the position you see here. It’s easy to see how this structure, still a bit raw-looking in its present condition, could become a unique live or work space for someone with vision. It’s also easy to see this house as an object lesson on how to think beyond ingrained assumptions. A house is not just a utilitarian box; in many ways it is a sculpture that we happen to use for shelter. And the task of contemporary architecture is not limited to putting up new, spectacular structures, always adding to the skyline. Architects need to help us re-envision what we have and help us make it better, help us use our built spaces to our best advantage. In a previous project by Wales and his students, they branded the parking meters of Allen Street with words beginning with re: re-use, re-vitalize, re-store. Re- is a prefix Wales and his colleagues clearly understand; hopefully, they will help the rest of Buffalo learn to understand it—and implement it.

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.


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