Puppies, National Historic Landmarks and Living the Green Life in Buffalo? Believe it or not there is a theme here. I find myself in Buffalo again for the second time this summer. Originally intending to just come for 2 days for a board meeting, I decided instead to stay for a week (which morphed into 10 days), so I could sit quietly in my sister’s backyard and actually get some work done. When Joanne discovered that I would be here for that length of time, it motivated her to buy that rare Barbet puppy she’d be thinking about. So my first day here we drove up to Kitchener, Ontario and came back with our new little immigrant, Finley. Now I would suggest that there are very few places in America where you can walk out the front door and take your puppy for a walk by National Historic Landmarks built by Sullivan, Richardson, Wright, Gordon Bunshaft, McKim Mead & White and Saarinen, without ever getting in a car (let alone a plane!).
A Sustainably Built Urban Fabric
If you’ve never been to Buffalo for the architecture, you’re missing one of the greatest architectural experiences ever. Really, no kidding. I grew up here and went to architecture school here and I can think of almost no other place that can give you such a perfect living laboratory for what’s great about architecture. (It is also a living laboratory for what can go so wrong with cities, but that’s a topic for another blog.) With a streetscape and park system inspired by L’Enfant and then expanded by Olmsted & Vaux, Richardson’s first use of the “Richardsonian Romanesque’, Sullivan’s first skyscraper and Wright’s best Prairie House peppering neighborhoods whose background buildings surpass landmarks found in any other city, Buffalo is a tapestry of the innovative, the beautiful and the best. And much of it remains intact because the economy is one of the worst in New York State and has been for a very long time. When there’s no development pressure, there’s no need (or less need) to tear down the bungalows for the McMansions. Of course there are the heartbreaking losses like the demolition of Wright’s seminal Larkin Building, whose site 30 years later, remains a parking lot. But stories such as that are rare compared to what is still here. So, in some respects, in a place like Buffalo, we have preservation and sustainability by neglect.
The Richardson Complex and Early passive climate control
H.H. Richardson’s largest building is in Buffalo – the former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, and has been vacant and deteriorating on and off for 40 years. New York State assigned $70 million to a new nonprofit board created in 2005 to oversee the development of the site. A portion of that is dedicated to creating an Architecture Center as one use in the complex. I wrote my first architectural history paper in college on the complex and continued to be involved in saving the site since 1980, including writing my master’s thesis on a reuse for the site. I was appointed to the Richardson Architecture Center Board in 2007 – so I always tell my students and interns to choose a topic for your thesis that you love because if you are as fortunate as I’ve been, you may find it carrying you through your career.
The complex was designed by Richardson with Olmsted & Vaux using the Kirkbride Plan which promoted the use of architecture and landscape as key to the actual treatment of mental illness. Here was an incredibly sustainable approach to architecture and living. The buildings were placed to gather the best possible southern light, used 15 foot high ceilings with cross ventilating windows and transoms and took advantage of 2 foot thick sandstone bearing walls. When I designed the adaptive use of one of the ward buildings into an office in the late 1980s, we went back to incorporating this smart, passive climate management system into the "new" building, and successfully opened the office using no air conditioning. No one complained, and in fact there was a wait list for offices in the building. But then unfortunately, just a few years later in the mid 1990s, a new director at the Psychiatric Center decided he didn’t want to be in the historic buildings at all, despite the rehabbed one confirming that it could be done. The complex was vacant yet again. So, with a dedicated board and some decent seed money, one can hope that this National Historic Landmark (only one of 7 in Buffalo) will find a way to become a vibrant center to Buffalo’s primary cultural neighborhood – the Elmwood Village and Buffalo’s West Side. And that we can remember the inherent sustainable design aspects of the original design.
Living Locally, Living Green
I don’t know about where you grew up or you live now, but our new green world is encouraging the growth of local businesses in every urban environment around the country. I did my best on this trip to go everywhere on my bike or walking. I rode my bike to the Richardson complex to check out its latest condition, spent an afternoon photographing Buffalo’s astonishing modern heritage on my bike, and walked to the farmers market and the Art Festival that only had local artisans and a whole area called “Environmental Row”. Every meal we cooked was filled with fresh vegetables and pastries from local businesses. Sometimes I worry that this new focus on local will make us all too insular, but I hope that after so many decades of global blandness, it will just help to balance our lives instead. So, as I get ready to drive back the 435 miles to DC and contribute heavily to global warming, I hope also that my carbon offsets, support of local businesses wherever I am, and walking as much as I can with our new puppy, will offset my job-induced carbon guzzling.
And mark October 2011 in your calendar – that’s when the National Preservation Conference comes to my hometown of Buffalo, one of the most perfect centers of American architecture!