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Beauty or beast? Beholders differ on new architectural creation Design of BlueCross BlueShield's next home strikes some as suburban intrusion into classic cityscape

The biggest privately funded building in downtown Buffalo in well over a decade would keep more than 1,300 employees in the city and clean up a brownfield.

One might expect some excitement.

But in some circles, people are concerned that in a city known for buildings designed by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, the new headquarters for BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York will look like just another suburban office park.

The architect, though, envisions a landmark building that melds Buffalo's past with its future.

At the heart of the controversy is a modern glass and concrete design that has a 60-foot stone facade, the sole remnant from the Gas Works factory of 1848, in the foreground.

The project has received approval from the city's Planning Commission, but it still faces a vote from the Preservation Board today. Although that board's vote is nonbinding, a thumbs down could put the matter before the Common Council.

"I think people will be poking fun at it for decades to come. I think it will be a new Buffalo punch line," said Cynthia Van Ness, president of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County and a member of the Buffalo Preservation Board.

Preservation Board member Sam Gurney, however, thinks the building will be a wonderful addition to downtown.

"The design fits very well with the city," Gurney said. "I think it blends the old with the new."

The dominant feature is a 350-foot-long curved glass front on the southern portion of the building, facing Lake Erie.

"The main presentation of the skyline [from the Niagara Thruway] is going to be this building. It's a behemoth," said architect Matt Maier of Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects.

Christopher F. Guerra of the Preservation Board sees the building making a valuable contribution. "Overall, I think it's going to be not a landmark structure, but a nice-looking structure," he said.

The sprawling, L-shaped complex includes an eight-story tower, a six-story operations building and seven-story atrium linking the two, plus a 1,500-space parking garage connected by bridges to the main building.

The $86.3 million project by HealthNow New York, the parent company of BlueCross BlueShield, marks the largest private office building to be built in Buffalo since the Key Towers were built in Fountain Plaza in the late 1980s.

Architect Steven R. Risting of CSO Schenkel Shultz, and Duke Realty Corp., the building's developer and owner, both of Indianapolis, have partnered on mostly suburban projects in the Midwest.

> Architect defends design

Risting said the HealthNow New York corporate headquarters was designed to be a "distinctive landmark" building that is also sustainable and energy-efficient.

"We chose to be a modern, 21st century building, with a respect for the historic architectural and urban design legacy of Buffalo," Risting said.

He rejects the notion his design resembles a suburban office building.

"That's where you get into the variety of opinion concerning what architecture is," Risting said. "The level of detail that is being put into this building you're not going to find out in the suburbs. It is a building that I think is of Buffalo, that references Buffalo, and is of this site."

One challenge was to integrate the 19th century landmark stone wall with a 21st century building. Risting said that it was not used as a prime entry, as some assumed it would be, because the factory wall never served that purpose. Instead, the wall is connected to the main building, with a second-floor terrace behind it.

"One of the most surprising things to me about that facade is how much it was lacking in window openings," Risting said. "It was an exquisitely detailed garden wall, and we've kind of treated it as a garden wall."

Some critics say the facade looks like a fish out of water.

Matthew Moscati of TRM Architect is disappointed in how the wall is used, and with the project as a whole.

"My impression of the building is that the design is an opportunity lost," Moscati said.

Guerra, who is also an architect with Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects, said Risting did well with a difficult task.

"It's not an easy thing to design around a piece of history like that," Guerra said.

Risting said many of his decisions were meant to pay homage to Buffalo's classic architecture.

A reference to Buffalo's brick Great Northern grain elevator, for instance, was made by the use of a vertical shaft of bricklike concrete. It intersects the horizontal mass of glass meant to suggest the lake, Risting said.

> A connection to Larkin

Likewise, the building's use of daylight and places for interaction are meant to mimic Wright's Larkin Administration Building, demolished in Buffalo a half-century ago, he said.

For some, those connections are too general or elusive.

Maier, for instance, likes the grain elevator tie-in. "Anything else is rather simplistic," he said.

"I don't see the references [Risting] said are there," Van Ness said.

Several Preservation Board members also complained that the site would not be pedestrian-friendly. Risting was asked to address some of the board's concerns at today's meeting.

"My biggest disappointment with the building is the insensitivity to the street and the pedestrian. It really isn't an urban building; it has a suburban office feel to it," Guerra said.

Risting said he believes that many of the criticisms will cease if there is more development west of City Hall.

"The comments are in reference to it being a detached building," Risting said. "Hopefully, the city can continue to grow to meet the building so it isn't so isolated."

BlueCross BlueShield's new quarters are expected to be ready for occupancy in August 2007. That is a few months before the company must vacate its current headquarters at 1901 Main St., next to Canisius College.

But first, the site is being remediated for coal tar and benzene, remnants of when the site was used to convert coal into gas.

Dennis T. Gorski, former Erie County executive and now BlueCross BlueShield's vice president of government programs, says any controversy surrounding the building's design should not obscure the fact that the company's decision to invest in the site will pay great dividends for Buffalo.

"We are remediating a site that was contaminated, we are preserving a facade and we are bringing in close to 1,300 employees," Gorski said.

> Point, counterpoint

Risting said he believes that the building will eventually take its place alongside Buffalo's architectural treasures.

"I've read where past buildings here were criticized for being too bold, too modern, and those buildings have gone on to become landmarks, as places of excellence," Risting said.

"Whether you like it or not, I guess, it will turn your head. That's good architecture."

Van Ness isn't so sure.

"It always amazes me that out-of-town architects first come here and gush about our architectural heritage," she said, "and then deliver designs that clash with everything around them."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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