This academic year (just concluding) seems to have been a turbocharged one for the UB School of Architecture and Planning. Right off the bat, there was a shot of adrenaline from being back in Hayes Hall for the first time in a half decade. The facilities there are simply world class, and from it’s opening it has been a hive of activity. Also, the school continues to add new professors, who arrive with up-to-date training and skills, and fresh perspectives.
Buffalo is especially fortunate indeed that the school’s activities are in no way confined to campus. Buffalo is something of a living museum of planning and architecture. Planning and architecture students can see, in vivo, what worked (primarily before World War II) and what didn’t (primarily after World War II). At the same time, class studies and student projects continually look for ways to make Buffalo and Western New York ever better.
Nowhere has that been more evident that at Silo City, which in the last half-dozen years has become something of a proving ground and incubator for UB to explore new ideas. Along the way, reciprocally, Silo City’s owner and impresario Rick Smith, whose metal fabrication business is next door, has become something of a student of planning and architecture himself. It seems like every other time I happen to be on campus I spot Rick, learning alongside the students, or talking with professors about ideas or projects.
The permanent/impermanent exhibit installed at Silo City this spring is a quintessential example. The purpose of the exhibit, according to UB, was to design and build “a collection of small structures that invite the public to experience the silos in a way they previously could not.” This was no small undertaking, with 105 students in the freshman design studio, grouped into ten teams. The project unfolded over two semesters.
The installations began as designs, then models, critiqued in the studio by a panel of professors. Ultimately, the students had to prepare construction documents, and mill the lumber themselves in the school’s “Fab Lab.” To work out the kinks, they assembled the structures on campus before disassembling them and assembling them again on site at Silo City. Professors Karen Tashjian and Matthew Hume led the studio.
It is of the essence of the installation that the works are intended to be subject to natural processes and decay over time. They are part of the landscape, and will eventually become part of the land. In the meantime, some of them will inevitably incorporate plant growth, which means they will not only change slowly with time and the forces of decay, but will change seasonally. Most are intended to have a primarily visual impact, while some also incorporate seating and even sheltered spaces.
Nature — and this includes you — will interact with these works in very different ways over time. You might saunter over to one to take a breather from an event at Marine A. In another, you might take shelter from a brief rain shower, or try using it as a blind to observe wildlife. All of them will tempt you to take photos with, in, around, through, and on them.
Overall, their impact is mainly visual. In addition to being dramatic in their own right — some designs being more visually intrusive in the landscape than others — each provides a striking contrast to the other dominant visual elements at Silo City, the grain elevators, as well as a series of lenses, apertures, and visual filters through which to see them.
When I arrived to take photos, I ran into Rick Smith showing the installation to a guest, both with a beer in hand. (Hey, it was after 5PM, and nothing in Buffalo happens without beer.) I started at the end closest to the river, where the spring rains had created a kind of vernal pool where I don’t recall one ever being before. But clearly the team had successfully improvised, building platforms supporting the installations and walkways to get to them.
As I made my way through the exhibits, Rick Smith walked past and asked which one was my favorite. I responded “the one I haven’t seen yet.” And that proved to be the case right to the end, because I was especially intrigued by the last one I visited. It consists of two separate yet visually engaged counterpoised curves (think Toronto City Hall) made of a grid. It’s well positioned to be visually juxtaposed with the zaftig Electric Extension elevator. It’s visually symbolic of Silo City, a place created by the storage of grain and the mechanization to process it, with a striking visual mix of curves meeting grids and grids meeting curves, curves of grids and grids of curves.
These works join other, more permanent installations at Silo City, some made of the patterned metal for which Rick Smith’s business, Rigidized Metals, is so well known. The large sculpture being installed this week in the Allen Street station is made from sections manufactured by Rigidized. The other installations include the Kindness Garden dedicated to Maksym Sugorovskiy who was killed on the Delaware Park ring road by a driver who ran off the Scajaquada Expressway, the Gateway Wall, and Elevator B.
What seems to work well at Silo City is an unexpected mix of industrial heritage, ecology, art (visual and performance), and architecture, combined with an owner willing to provide the interior, exterior, and metaphoric space for experimentation. It seems Rick Smith, Silo City, and UB were made for each other.
What is my favorite thing at Silo City? As always: the next thing. Especially if the next thing may be this.
See UB’s full Reflection Space photo gallery here.
This installation is on private property, and available for viewing whenever Silo City is open for public events.