Problem: You want to understand the story of modernity, but only have an afternoon to do it.
Solution: Take a drive through downtown Buffalo.
There are plenty of places in the United States, where, given the right advice and a week or two, you could piece together your own self-guided story of how contemporary society and culture came to be. But there aren’t too many places where the entire sweep of modern life, from the great texts of the Renaissance to the dawn of the alternative energy revolution, is so easily, breezily accessed.
Our trove of modernist marvels is manageable. It’s compact. It’s expertly curated. And it’s usually within reach of a cocktail, if that helps.
This periodic epiphany of mine – not remotely a novel one – reoccurred last week while I was reading up on the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library’s remarkable “Milestones of Science” collection, now on view in a renovated second-floor gallery. While reading up on the great books in the collection, I was also absentmindedly flipping through Facebook pictures of the recently illuminated grain elevator near Canalside and shots of gawking visitors to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s excellent new show “Monet and the Impressionist Revolution.”
And there they were: Three seemingly disparate examples of human creativity, each a crucial touchstone of the city’s status as a living, breathing museum of modernity – from the concrete structures that fueled the city’s growth and inspired so much 20th-century architecture to one of the great collections of modern art in the world.
With this in mind, here’s one example of an afternoon itinerary that will take you through the story of modernity with time to stop off for bite or a drink to contemplate the compact collection of wonders that surrounds you:
Noon: The waterfront
Start by parking near Canalside and ambling over to the burbling Commercial Slip and its adjoining ruins, which mark the historic western terminus of the Erie Canal. On those waters floated ships carrying endless of tons of grain, which was then housed in a series of hulking, concrete structures designed for maximum capacity and functional simplicity.
The purpose-built grain silos and elevators that line the Buffalo River, in addition to creating the flow of capital that produced many of Buffalo's great early architectural masterpieces, also influenced a generation of European architects inspired by their monumentality and elegant simplicity. The great Swiss architect Le Corbusier praised them, with no exaggeration, as "the first fruits of the New Age, " and so they were: The utilitarian style of the silos made a huge impression on European architects of the International Style and what came to be known as Brutalism, which would later flow back to Buffalo in the form of buildings such as Buffalo City Court, the Shoreline Apartments and The Buffalo News.
A drive along Ganson Street will give you spectacular views of several elevators, after which you can stop off for a drink at Gene McCarthy's (73 Hamburg St.) to process their grandeur before heading to your next destination.
1:30 p.m.: Downtown architecture tour
To see where much of the wealth created by Buffalo's status a booming hub for grain transshipment went, park yourself in the vicinity of Lafayette Square, take out your smart-phone and pull up Visit Buffalo Niagara's mobile tour (buffaloonfoot.toursphere.com).
Let your phone guide you through what is one of the most compact, complete outdoor museums of 20th century architecture in America. There is scarcely a vista in this space of a few city blocks that will not reveal a peerless example of a late-19th or 20th century architectural style, from Art Deco City Hall or Brutalist City Court (love it or hate it) to Louis Sullivan's famous Guaranty Building and the gleaming Electric Tower, fittingly based on the long-ago demolished Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt, which drew ancient travelers to another city whose status as a shipping hub produced important creative contributions from around the world.
When you've had your fill of architectural wonders, pop into the Hotel @ Lafayette for coffee and/or a pastry at Public Espresso, housed in the beautifully restored lobby of a building designed by America's first professional female architect, Louise Blanchard Bethune.
2:30 p.m.: Central Library
Before leaving downtown for points north, take a side-trip to the mid-century Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, where on the second floor sit original copies of some of the most important books in the history of civilization. The "Milestones of Science" collection, compiled in the 1930s by one of Buffalo's many visionary collectors of the periods, stretches from the world-shaking theories of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton to the discoveries of Marie Curie. While you're there, you can also take a peek at the original handwritten manuscript for Mark Twain's masterpiece, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Together, these works provide a first-hand context for the modernist marvels that are this city's strength.
3:30 p.m. Albright-Knox Art Gallery
On the edge of Delaware Park -- just one of the renowned works in Buffalo by Frederick Law Olmsted -- sits this neoclassical remnant of the Pan-American Exposition later expanded by the modernist architect Gordon Bunshaft. Its collection, featured in the current exhibition "Monet and the Impressionist Revolution," contains some of the great European and American paintings and sculptures of the 20th century. Other people have to flip open art history books to see them, but we can just drive to the Elmwood Village.
Like the architectural treasures of downtown, this collection tells a story about modern life: In Giacomo Balla's "Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash" from 1912, you see the quickening pulse of modern city life and the concurrent desire to capture it in new ways. In Paul Gauguin's "Yellow Christ" from 1889, you can practically smell the dawn of modern life coming into being, as a solitary figure retreats from a classic crucifixion scene into the indistinct promise of the modernist landscape in the background.
If you want to understand how and why society hit fast-forward during the last half of the 19th and century and hasn't slowed down since, you could hardly do better than a stroll through the Albright-Knox. This is true always, but especially with its current show, which explores the ways in which French Impressionists broke from a longstanding tradition and helped to light a fire that has yet to burn out.
With all that art, architecture and history on your brain, cap off your day with a visit to nearby Rohall’s Corner (540 Amherst St.) for a cold brew, and to congratulate yourself for your five-hour tour through the story of modern America.
Story topics: Albright-Knox Art Gallery/ architecture/ art/ Buffalo and Erie County Central Library/ colin dabkowski/ Commercial Slip/ gene mccarthy's/ grain elevators/ grain silos/ Shoreline Apartments