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Architect Q&A: CannonDesign’s Michael Tunkey, AIA

CannonDesign has come a long way since its founding by William Cannon, Sr. 100 years ago in Niagara Falls. Today, the firm has hundreds of employees in 16 offices across the globe while retaining its headquarters on Grand Island. Locally, the firm has worked on a number of high-profile projects including the Gates Vascular Institute, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, the Erie County Public Safety Campus on Elm Street, Canisius College’s Montante Cultural Center, and the restoration of the Guaranty Building.

The company is currently working on two ambitious projects being undertaken by Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation: A mixed-use development at 201 Ellicott Street and Queenslight, a multi-building project on the Children’s Hospital campus in the Elmwood Village.

Michael Tunkey, AIA is a Principal at CannonDesign and a key leader of CannonDesign’s Buffalo Practice. He is deeply involved with the Ciminelli projects that will be some of CannonDesign’s most visible Buffalo design work when completed. Below is Michael’s biography followed by questions to learn more about his work.

Michael Tunkey, AIA, is a leading advocate for design as a resource to unite and strengthen cities. Having led corporate mixed-use, education, civic and healthcare design projects across the world, Michael brings diverse, multi-cultural experience and perspective to the developers and organizations with which he partners. He understands the value of engaging all stakeholders and focuses on the positive impact design can have for individuals, communities and organizations, ultimately guiding teams to deliver exceptional design results that achieve results for developers and users. Well versed in every phase of the design process, Michael is always encouraging designers and clients to pursue signature design solutions that enrich our civic environments.

Buffalo Rising: Why should people care about design?

Design is: shaping our lives through the application of our values. For example, I try to take time on Saturday mornings to sketch at my kitchen table. I designed the house I’m sitting in, I built the table I’m drawing on. While I’m sketching, I prepare tea in a small, jade-green tea set from Shandong. These objects – the tea set, the table, the house, the pen and paper – I’ve shaped them and now they shape me. That’s design. You spend most of your life floating in a world shaped by other people’s values. Don’t you think that’s worth caring about?

Tea set & sketches | Mike’s house

Buffalo Rising: Fast Company recently named CannonDesign as one of the most innovative Architecture firms in the world. What does that mean to you?

This recognition resonates with me a great deal. My stepfather and mentor, Mark Mendell, worked at CannonDesign for 40 years. His generation’s vision helped us grow from a single Buffalo office to a global design innovation company. I’m very proud to follow in those footsteps. It reminds me to keep pushing forward.

Buffalo Rising: What types of projects give you the most design freedom – public or private sector.
I think almost every project is a public project. Every project has neighbors, context, history. Buildings are like people, they need to find a balance between a private life and a public life. So really your question is more about funding mechanisms. Personally, I like working on projects with high expectations and limited budgets – they push us to be more creative.

Buffalo Rising: What project have you enjoyed working on the most during your career?

The project that springs to mind is a small Artist’s Residence that we built in the suburbs of Beijing. At that time, I was working with my teacher from Harvard, Nader Tehrani, and we collaborated with the artist, Ai Weiwei. I spent five months carrying my Pocket Chinese-English Dictionary to that dusty construction site. Compared to a typical American project, the construction process was like punk rock: unskilled labor, raw materials, and too much beer. We built something strange and iconic through a process of warm-hearted collaboration and random, hilarious mistranslations. Crazy and fun.

Small Artist’s Residence built in the suburbs of Beijing

Buffalo Rising: Name your favorite Buffalo building.

That’s not a fair question – there are too many. I love evening performances at the Albright Knox. With the curtains open and the sun slanting in from Elmwood Avenue, the Bunshaft auditorium becomes a Mid-Century Modern temple in the middle of the Delaware Park. That’s a good one.

Buffalo Rising: What is the one project type you have not worked on yet but would like to design?

Maybe I’m working on it now? A complex mixed-use project, in a historic neighborhood, with a wide range of both uses and construction types. We’re excited about QueensLight.

Buffalo Rising: How important is context when designing a building, particularly in a city with a significant stock of historic buildings?

Very important. Our team tries to design buildings that relate to the historic context without imitating historic buildings directly. We try to create a respectful conversation between our generation and the past. This is especially true in our current work in Buffalo.

That said, I’m not dogmatic about our approach. I tend to be equally worried about the people who want to change everything as I am about the people who don’t want anything to change. Great cities are rarely homogenous. We should allow a little room for divergent ways of thinking about context.

Buffalo Rising: What is Buffalo’s biggest built environment challenge?

Generally speaking, the built environment doesn’t have a challenge, the people do. We have to consider cause and effect. Mostly we have societal challenges that are reflected in the built environment. I would say that Buffalo’s greatest societal challenge is EQUITY. You see this inequity reflected everywhere in the mass and void of our city – where we have invested and where we have demolished. I worry that we spend a lot of social energy debating a select few projects in the city. We need to be both more humble and more ambitious about what challenges we address through design discussion in our city.

Mike’s daughter

Buffalo Rising: What has been the biggest change in architecture over the past decade? 

The renewed focus on social responsibility. Younger architects care more about positive impact and diversity than previous generations. That’s a reason for hope.

Buffalo Rising: China has been pushing the architecture envelope. What have you learned from your time there?

Wow, that’s a whole other interview. I curated two exhibitions on this topic: “Ordos Now”, and “unMade In China.” Both of these exhibitions discussed the problematic euphoria of super-charged development in China.

As it relates to Buffalo, I’ll say that we always interpret the “meaning” of a city through our memory. For example, Shanghai was where our daughters were born, where we spent our 30s. It’s very sweet to me. Our tree-lined street and quiet Art Nouveau apartment in the French Concession, the buzz of that frenetic futuristic metropolis surrounding us, these memories remind me that the cosmopolitan city thrives in complexity beyond comprehension. So, you could say that China taught me to be wary of overly-prescriptive ideas about “good urbanism.”

Buffalo Rising: Today you are involved with two transformative projects at 201 Ellicott (above) and QueensLight (below). How important are these projects to CannonDesign and why.

Incredibly important. Architecture takes a long time. Even the most fortunate architects will only work on a few truly transformative projects. Both of these projects – for different reasons – have the potential to make significant positive change in our city. We have a great client who is driving us to do the right thing. We’ve developed a good dialogue with the community. We are working on two of the most significant sites in arguably the greatest city for architecture in America… So, no pressure.

Buffalo Rising: A New Train Station – Downtown or Central Terminal?

I don’t like these binary, partisan choices about our public spaces.

From a pragmatic perspective, we should remember that politicians and investors have a strong aversion to controversy. When we draw sharp battle lines in public, it’s great for our egos but creates a bad environment for progress. We’d be much better off meeting in person to create consensus. Honey over vinegar.

From a more theoretical perspective, great design can cut through binary choices in unexpected ways. But to do this, we must be truly open-minded. We should start with a framework of “Downtown AND Central Terminal.” We should be willing to switch sides, consider tangential possibilities, accept new information.

This is the difference between a Design process and a Political process.

Get Connected: CannonDesign, 716.773.6800

Tunkey worked on Haikou, China’s Hainan Cancer Center, the country’s first LEED Gold health and research center

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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