Note: this piece relates to an exhibit that opened Friday, October 4 (on view through November 16) at El Museo. Details here and below.
Leadership vacuums are bad, because they make it hard to get things done in the here and now. And often, they invite the ineffective or opportunistic to try to seize the reins, which can make it hard to get things done in the future.
But sometimes a leadership vacuum, out of necessity if nothing else, will spur leadership from unexpected sources to step up and prove worthy to the challenge. Something like that is happening with the issue of the fate of Shoreline Apartments and other issues affecting preservation and reuse of modernist architecture in Buffalo.
That leadership is especially welcome given the extraordinary leadership failure demonstrated by the situation with Shoreline Apartments to date. For too long that issue has been allowed to become a case study in a breakdown of leadership in many areas essential to city life: community leadership, political leadership, leadership in areas of housing and community development, planning, preservation, and economic justice. For too long, private interests have been able to dominate a situation where the community has been able to do relatively little, to date, to find a collective voice to assert its interests.
Mark Byrnes of CityLab has the best account to date of how this went down.
Because Shoreline Apartments and their site were designed by one of the nation’s most prominent modernist architects, the failure of the preservation community to successfully engage on this issue has perhaps been most visible. The timing provded especially unfortunate, with the issue arising about the time Preservation Buffalo-Niagara was sliding into organizational collapse, a collapse from which they nearly didn’t emerge. They did hold a public forum on the issue at the Central Library, but it was so poorly conceived and executed as to leave many more confused than before they attended. If intended to make the case for preservation, it didn’t do much for me, nor for the Buffalo News’ arts critic Colin Dabkowski, as he wrote the next day.
Aside from the unique organizational failure in progress at the time, the utter inability of Buffalo’s preservation community to have any effect on the Shoreline Apartments issue could be considered a case study in the complications of mid-century modern preservation. A primary source of those complications is that modernist architecture and planning didn’t just embrace new forms and materials, but also embraced modernism as an ideology. That ideology led to effects like Cartesian zoning (discrete uses in discrete districts), auto-centric development, and out-of-hand rejection of past practices.
Early on, cities were able to embrace modern designs even thought they looked significantly different from what came before, because they often respected the surrounding urban fabric. But later, modernists and their clients began to arrogantly attempt impose a new vision, leading modernist projects to have an increasingly negative effect on their surroundings.
Signs of that process at work are all around Buffalo. The 198, for example, got its start with a sunken underpass for Humboldt Parkway under Main Street. Still, the trench was lined with limestone blocks, in recognition of the parkway context. But by the time the 198 was completed, engineers were ramming concrete and steel through the middle of parkland and a creek valley with little consideration of context except as obstacle to be overcome.
In architecture, you can see the difference between the modern skyscrapers at Lafayette Square – the Rand, Main-Court, and Tishman Buildings – that play nicely with their neighbors and are built to the street and the banking towers to the south that required demolitions of entire blocks, disrupted the street grid, and were surrounded by windswept plazas. Tim Tielman addressed this as only he could in Episode 3 of his Adventures in Buffaloland series of videos:
So preservation of modernism is often complicated not just by the visceral reactions that many have to the architecture – “That’s ugly! Knock it down!” – but by other effects on the urban realm associated with design practices of the era. Boston City Hall is a perfect example of a building that many have loved to hate, and once faced very real threats of demolition. Stopping that was in part due to an education campaign by modernism advocates to get Bostonians to stop fighting City Hall and take pride in being governed from one of the world’s most notable pieces of architecture.
But preserving Boston’s City Hall also took finding ways to make the building friendlier and function better and – especially – soften and enliven the barren plaza surrounding it. To save itself, it had to shrug off some of its Corbusian aloofness and rub shoulders with the people it was built to house and serve – because that’s what happens in real cities full of real people with real lives, as opposed to the radiant, barren, expressway-filled cities that the founders of modernism fantasized during long stretches of unemployment during wars and depressions.
One of the challenges of Shoreline Apartments is that they were conceived by modernist architect Paul Rudolph as part of a similar fantastic city on Buffalo’s waterfront (see lead image), with massive Brutalist piles built to the bulkheaded water’s edge on one side and surrounded by crescents of asphalt moat keeping the well-mixed, gritty city at a safe distance on the other. Few saw the irony of a brilliant modernist wanting to create, essentially, a throwback to a medieval Mediterranean walled-and-moated city with stepped habitations on the shores of Lake Erie in the twentieth century.
The Urban Development Corporation, created by Governor Nelson Rockefeller after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., with its sweeping powers to override almost all other considerations perhaps lending itself to such schemes, is nicely chronicled in CityLab by Mark Byrnes, who is well familiar with Shoreline from his time as a student in Buffalo.
So not only its anti-urban design, but the way it was imposed top-down, with a lack of consideration for urban context or other planning factors, with corners cut in a rush to get it built, dogged Shoreline from the start, and helped put in the crosshairs of the wrecking ball. Some of it is already gone, and the rest could follow. What to do?
It is into this morass of bad design, bad leadership, and bad history that El Museo, Architect and AIA Fellow Barbara Campagna, and Docomomo (formally, the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.) bravely wade, unwilling to turn a blind eye to this issue as have so many others who should have been playing a role from the beginning. And they should be commended for doing so. At the moment, they are working to educate the community on an ambitious hierarchy of related topics from Modernism to Brutalism to Architect Paul Rudolph to the nitty-gritty of Shoreline.
This is necessary, but may not be sufficient. It is essential to listen and learn. But ultimately, I believe it will take a broad-based coalition of community stakeholders of all kinds to speak and act to affect what happens next. And that will require a level of leadership to emerge that hasn’t been seen to date in the half-decade of this issue.
Significantly, it will also require compromise. If preservation advocates insist that the only acceptable solution is to retain and rehab everything that is left of Shoreline Apartments – including the irredeemably anti-urban frontage along Niagara Street – they’re likely to win few friends and so risk losing everything that presently remains.
Yes, let’s listen and learn and think. But then it will be time to lead and speak and act.
Shoreline: Remembering a Waterfront Vision opened Friday, October 4 at El Museo.
El Museo Francisco Oller y Diego Rivera
91 Allen Street
Buffalo, NY 14202