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Architectural Design: What to Replicate, Redesign or Save

The October
issue of Metropolis

magazine focuses a bit of attention on Buffalo and on the Martin House complex
in particular. The magazine has some nice things to say about the City of
Buffalo, and they also offer a philosophical question to ponder. 

Jacobs notes Buffalo’s glorious past and precipitous fall from grace,
writing, “…the Buffalo I found when I finally made my first trip
there this summer was a pretty and vibrant place.”  She made her way
around city and complimented the many restored buildings, took note of
the “luxuriant back yards” of Garden Walk and praised the
“extraordinary Western New York artists” shown at the Burchfield
Penny.  Once again Buffalo as a whole gets some very good national press,
even though the focus of her story had to do with the newly restored Martin
House complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. 

She praises
the new Toshiko Mori designed visitor center and the extraordinary quality of
the Martin House restoration, but notes that she is troubled by the
reconstruction of demolished buildings. She poses this
quandary: “Once a landmark piece of architecture is gone, is it
better to re-create it, or let its absence tell the story?  Does
re-created experience trump the value of authenticity?”  She notes
that she understands the urge to replace the missing buildings but states,
“there is something weirdly soulless about the freshly-minted historic

I found
myself straddling the fence on this issue, so I started setting some rules to
allow myself to determine what I think is the correct approach to restoration
and reconstruction.  I am not the only one to do this.  Professional
restoration designers, historians, and organizations have rigorous standards to
inform the best course of action when proceeding with restoration and
replacement of historic architecture.  This is such a big issue that I
can’t possibly cover it adequately here–and this is not just a Buffalo issue.

As I write, the Greeks are reconstructing the Parthenon with new marbles
being carved on-site, in the manner done thousands of years ago.  As well,
thousands of less spectacular building restorations depend on our ability to
recreate missing pieces such as moldings, windows, and carvings.  Architecture
is an art, but it is also more than an art.  It forms the backdrop for our
lives and is the product of an architect’s talents, but also that of many
craftsmen and laborers. Deciding what to replace in a restoration is a delicate
balance between bringing back the space and experience and creating a pretense.

In the case
of the Martin House, I believe that the Restoration Corporation is doing it
just right. They rebuilt the missing buildings based on vast amounts of
photographic and written documentation, including the actual construction
drawings and the record of actual historic materials.  They did not
proceed with portions of the work until they had sources for materials that
exactly matched original material. They were also not replacing an entire
building in a different location.  This project put back a missing part of
an existing building, a part that was integral to the experience of the whole
building.  The Martin House was a shallow echo of what it was intended to
be without the pergola, garage, and conservatory that were recently
reconstructed.  In this case, perhaps I am influenced by the selfish joy I
get from being able to visit these buildings that should never have been
removed.  Also, when it came to building the new visitor center on the
Martin House campus, the Restoration Corporation did not commission a fake
Wright building or one that mimicked the original.  They built instead a
boldly contemporary structure that compliments the original.

Buffalo has
built 2 other new “Wright” buildings in recent years (a mausoleum in
Forest Lawn and a boat house on the Black Rock Canal), and plans another.
 But these cannot accurately be called Wright designed buildings.
 They are more accurately called buildings based on Wright concepts.
 These buildings were developed from concept sketches and drawings not
fully detailed by Wright. Wright was notorious for changing a building design
as it was being built, often taking down portions that did not satisfy his
goals.  He joked that his favorite design tools were a sledgehammer and a
crow bar.  These resultant contemporary, new Wright buildings did not
benefit form his presence during construction, and they contain many
interpretations and outright changes based on contemporary needs and budgets.  They
are attractive and interesting to see, but fall in a much fuzzier area of the
architectural moral code.  Should they have been built? Again my
selfishness kicks in and enjoys the ability to experience them, not so much for
their Wright-ness, but for what they provide as a place to be.

Then there is
Canal Side; it is big in the news these days as detailed plans have been
revealed for a potentially spectacular project. This major development project
was born in controversy over reproduction versus restoration of an original
part of the Erie Canal.  Thankfully the real canal was restored and will
form the seed of a redeveloped waterfront.  The irony here is that the
real canal will be surrounded by buildings that seek to recreate a
historic-feeling canal village that was cleared off the earth decades ago in
favor of parking. 

canal shot.png

The new
project does not seek to rebuild exact copies of historic buildings from which
we can learn something about canal era Buffalo.  Rather, the new plan
calls for new historic-ish architecture.  The proposed urban design
thinking evident in the many lavish renderings showing complex urban spaces is
beautiful and compelling.  The architecture with its interpretation of an
olden-days canal town inside a modern city is far less so.  In my opinion,
we miss a great opportunity at this location when we ban the inclusion of
contemporary buildings expressive of contemporary thinking and technology in
architecture.  To do “pretend history” here, with warehousey,
lofty-like, old-timey-looking mill buildings, where everything from the canal
era was wiped away decades ago, seems silly to me.   Don’t get me wrong–I
want this to be built and believe it will be very good for Buffalo.  But I
think it is odd to build fake history here, especially when you realize that
just one block east of Canal Side is a block containing the last remaining REAL
canal era buildings.  And they are in danger.

south park corner.png

buildings–that are authentically historic–are currently being allowed to
crumble from disinvestment and neglect. They are in the area shown on the Canal
Side plans label as the Cobblestone Loft District.  Most of this
“Cobblestone” district currently consists of massive asphalt parking
lots.  A small patch of Buffalo’s earliest industrial history remains in
the Cobblestone District and can still be saved. Perhaps we can head off this
question of architectural mortality and morality in the future.  If we
save the buildings with real history we won’t have to worry about replacing
them with fakes in the future.

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