Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

A Buffalo Case Study: Can Architecture Bring a City Back?

Minoru Yamasaki's One M&T Plaza; sculpture by Harry Bertoia. Photo by Vik Pahwa.

I don’t mean the Bilbao effect, where a single extraordinary building designed by an out-of-town architect suddenly makes a city present to the wider world. Imagine the opposite of that, where a city’s existing landmarks and infrastructure, built over preceding decades (sometimes by the Frank Gehrys of their day) are maintained, upgraded, restored, and repurposed for the 21st century. Where the grain elevators captured in their grace and precision by Charles Sheeler, once thought of locally as eyesores, become havens for extreme sports and small-batch beer. Where a psychiatric hospital, once an experiment in humane treatment, reopens as a hotel, a farm-to-table restaurant situated on the ruins of the hospital’s therapeutic conservatory. Where renewal can be visualized by asking What Would Olmsted Do? It’s too soon to declare the recovery complete, but all of these things are currently happening in Buffalo, New York.

Architecture serves as both a safety net and growth engine in Buffalo, which, thanks to a booming turn-of-the-last-century economy has one of the best collections of late-19th and 20th century architecture and urban fabric in the country. Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Frank Lloyd Wright, H.H. Richardson, and the Saarinens (both father and son) all did superlative work here before the second World War, as did native son Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in the midcentury. In the terrazzo hallways at Bunshaft’s wing of the Albright-Knox Museum, you can see paintings smaller than those seen at the new Whitney—a Kline, a Ruscha, a Rothko—though of equal quality. As the woman at the front desk tells visitors, museum benefactor Seymour Knox liked to buy work “while the paint was still wet.”