This presentation is part of the Mid-Century Modern Structures: Materials and Preservation Symposium, April 14-16, 2015, St. Louis, Missouri.
Material, Building Type Or Beauty – What Makes Preserving Brutalist Architecture in Buffalo So Hard?
By Barbara Campagna
Why is Brutalism one of the most difficult eras to preserve? Questions of authenticity, the use of materials such as concrete panels and concrete block, the construction of new building types like public housing that do not have inherent supporters, and maintaining some of the most energy inefficient buildings ever built are some of the aspects that impact its preservation. This paper will look at Brutalist icons in Buffalo, New York, which demonstrate the pros and cons of saving these buildings.
Buffalo Modernism Buffalo has a rich modernist heritage, which is now under siege. Not surprisingly, it is concrete Brutalist style buildings at the forefront of this battle. As a way to counteract misconceptions about modernism, this author taught a seminar last spring in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture & Planning. The semester long project was to document a Buffalo modern for the DOCOMOMO US Registry. Four buildings represent the Brutalist era and their appreciation or lack thereof seems to be related to ownership, building type, site plan, maintenance of material and perception of beauty. Those buildings remaining in the ownership of the original owners have fared much better than those that have not.
The Buffalo Evening News Building, Edward Durell Stone
The Buffalo Evening News Building was designed in 1973 by Edward Durell Stone using both site-cast and precast concrete. The project melded the influences of Buffalo’s heavy Gothic architecture with the purity and minimalism of the International Style. The complex has remained in use as the paper’s headquarters and is in fair condition, although its concrete and flat roof require constant maintenance. There is no current threat, but a better level of appreciation of this restrained yet significant structure is desirable.
Temple Beth Zion, Max Abramovitz
The Temple Beth Zion, designed by Max Abramovitz in 1967, is representative of the Brutalist movement with symbolic intent and material use. Monolithic, rough-face concrete walls with exposed aggregate and fastener holes reference a simplistic and unadorned approach. It received both national and local praise for its beauty and progressive aesthetic stature when it opened. The complex remains a beloved symbol of the congregation and is not threatened.
One Seneca Tower (former HSBC Center), SOM
SOM designed this precast concrete building in 1972 as a bank’s headquarters. At 40 stories, it remains the tallest privately owned building outside of New York City. It has a conflicted relationship with Main Street, which is articulated through a barren tunnel and windswept plazas at the base of the building. Its most recent primary tenant, HSBC, moved out in 2013, leaving the building 95% vacant with its owners in bankruptcy. It is one of the least liked buildings in Buffalo.
The Shoreline Apartments, Paul Rudolph
The Shoreline Apartments, a public housing development, was commissioned in 1969. What was ultimately completed in 1974 was considerably reduced in scale from Rudolph’s original scheme. Featuring corduroy concrete block, projecting balconies and enclosed garden courts, the project’s serpentine site plan was meant to create active communal green spaces, but the spaces went unused and the high crime rate over the years has often been attributed to the design rather than poor management.
Still low-income housing, Shoreline is currently threated by the current owners who are proposing demolishing five of the original 32 buildings and replacing them with “Nouveau Victorian fiber cement board suburban rowhouses.” Their reason – the buildings are “ugly,” energy inefficient and encourage crime.
Barbara Campagna has been a preservation architect for 25 years and at the forefront of the sustainability movement as a leading voice for the integration of preservation, green building practices and modernism. Formerly the GSA Historic Preservation Officer for the Northwest and the Chief Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, she started her firm, BAC/Architecture + Planning, in 2011 and holds appointments at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture & Planning and FIT, the State University of New York. She is the Chair and Assistant Professor for the Sustainable Interior Environments graduate program at FIT in NYC.