Buffalo architect Adam Sokol has a lot of out-of-the-box ideas for Buffalo.
Sokol imagines large art installations, galleries and other art-related uses for the Central Terminal similar to Mass MoCA, a tourist destination in North Adams, Mass. He has a plan to turn Silo City into a national park, another to create a dedicated bike path through the city without traffic lights and contact with cars, and one for the East Side that promotes urban farming and alternative energy generation on vacant land, with a pre-fab housing factory to create housing and jobs.
Sokol, a Long Island native, is a graduate of Columbia and Yale universities. He started ASAP/Adam Sokol Architecture Practice in 2007, and was a visiting assistant professor of architecture at the University of Buffalo from 2006 to 2011.
Sokol, 37, also maintains an office in Los Angeles, where his design for a 28-story downtown hotel is now before that city's planning department.
Q: What's it like being an architect in Buffalo?
A: There are kind of three career paths in architecture. One is academia, the second is commercial firms and the third path is more design-driven. That's the path I try to go down. I think it's the inspiring part that makes people want to be an architect. It's challenging anywhere, but I think it's even more so in Buffalo.
Q: Why is that?
A: Design takes effort, and effort is time, and if you're running a business time is money, and so in a nutshell design costs money. The majority of developers in Buffalo are just looking at cost, and everything is very cost-competitive.
We have lost out bidding on contracts for fairly trifling amounts of money in my opinion. Shortcuts seem foolish and shortsighted, yet that seems to be the norm, even more so here.
When you think of Buffalo's great classic buildings, they weren't done necessarily to be cost-effective, but because people really wanted to build something inspiring. I don't know that we see that ambition in the city today. It's disheartening to see how that has changed.
Q: You have said Buffalo is often a prisoner to its past.
A: The past is easy because it's there. It's easier to look at these relics of the past and idolize them than it is to imagine an alternative future which, of necessity, is going to be different than the past.
If this city has a bright future ahead of it, and I'd like to think it does, it's not going to be about transportation on the Great Lakes necessarily, and manufacturing and things it has been. It's going to be about things quite different, or things we don't even know about yet. Let the past be the past and lets focus on building a great future.
Q: What are the barriers to better architecture in Buffalo?
A: In terms of the private sector, the vast majority of developers are just interested in cost and see little value in design. Most of the significant opportunities in architecture in Buffalo are in the public sector. It's all done by law with RFPs (request for proposals), but the RFPs are really set up to promote experience over everything else.
The RFP process is extremely opaque. There is nothing that actually promotes quality. I think there is a sense that experience equals quality, and I think that might be false.
I actually have found that the process is sort of corrupt, which is a strong word to use. There are a small number of firms in Buffalo who are getting public sector work, and I guarantee you those firms are donating money to politicians who are directing money to different projects. I even think that in many cases RFPs are constructed in a very narrow way to make sure only certain people will qualify.
Q: Are there examples of how to encourage better design?
A: The City of New York under Mayor Bloomberg, and to some extent under Mayor de Blasio, has a design excellence program where they take capital projects and shortlist architects based on design quality. It's not based on how they built 10 other sanitation depots, but whether they were capable of building a sanitation depot that would be beautiful.
I use that example because New York City had to build a depot for garbage trucks and salt in Manhattan. They built the most beautiful salt shed you could imagine. It looks like a giant crystal on the west side of Manhattan.
Q: Should the city demand better design?
A:Absolutely. A generation ago the city was so so desperate financially that it would have been absurd to have this conversation. Mayor Brown, to his credit, has really stabilized things financially. I think Buffalo may be at that place where the house is a bit more in order, and we can ask how we raise the bar, and what the city is going to do to help make that happen.
Q: Why should Silo City be a national park?
A: The underutilized grain silos are an amazing part of Buffalo's history. We thought, wouldn't it be great if they could become an urban national park? There are precedents for them. But when we came up with that we thought New York State was going to have the next Senate majority leader. But things didn't work out as planned, although for what it's worth the president is from New York State. I don't know how Donald Trump feels about urban national parks.