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What's next for Buffalo's architecture?

So what's next for Buffalo?

That's a question many are asking as Buffalo's economic and real estate renaissance continues. They're wondering how to maintain and capitalize on the region's newfound momentum.

Given the prominent role that redevelopment, adaptive reuse and new construction have played in the process, it's a particularly relevant question for architects and engineers. That's why CannonDesign made it the focus of a recent forum at the Grand Island-based firm.

Founded a century ago in Niagara Falls by William Cannon Sr., the firm operates 16 offices worldwide and has worked on projects such as the Gates Vascular Institute, the Erie County Public Safety Campus and the Guaranty Building renovation.

Michael Tunkey, a Buffalo native who lives in the Southtowns, has spent 20 years working for CannonDesign, since he was an undergraduate student at the University at Buffalo. He later moved to New York City and then Boston, still working for Cannon while pursuing graduate studies, and then seized on an opportunity to open an office for the firm in Shanghai, China. He spent eight years in China, before moving back three years ago with his wife, also a Buffalo-born architect, and their two daughters.

CannonDesign worked on the design for the Gates Vascular Institute, pictured here before it was completed. (Buffalo News file photo).

He spoke recently to The Buffalo News about returning to his hometown, the region's architectural trends and what new work will happen in his generation.

Q: Coming back to Buffalo, after being in New York, Boston and Shanghai, what do you think of what's happening in your hometown?

A: My wife is also from Buffalo and also an architect, so the 18-year period between undergrad and coming back, we were coming back every year. We were seeing the changes as we came back. We were seeing friends moving back, more opportunities, the things everyone's been seeing.

Buffalo is a uniquely livable city. Whenever you meet people in New York or Boston or anywhere, even China, who are from Buffalo, you can see there's a real desire to move back. For me, it's a great place to grow up, and so for us, we were really looking and seeing that there are actually opportunities to come back, whereas when I was a little bit younger, it didn't feel like there were economic opportunities to move back.

I don't consider myself personally ambitious, but you can do ambitious work in a city like this, and in some ways, I felt like it would be more relevant than doing projects in Boston or New York, where the projects obviously would be heavily funded, but maybe not as interesting to me personally.

Q: Does what's happening here compare favorably to other cities?

A: From the perspective of our national and international practice, 15 to 20 years ago, when I was wrapping up architecture school, all of the action was in the big cities, and that really came from when the last phase of the industrial revolution closed down Pittsburgh, Buffalo and St. Louis. It's almost like this Ice Age where you saw this glacier of non-development roll across those cities.

And then what we've been seeing not just in Buffalo, but also in our St. Louis office, and the Pittsburgh office, you're seeing that glacier sort of recede, and under that glacier, you just have so many treasures. So I always think about Buffalo in terms of a natural location, great city planning and architecture. Those are the three things that were always there, but sort of get revealed.

Q: Are you surprised by what's been happening in Buffalo?

A: I have been very pleasantly surprised. I've been seeing it coming for a while. Even 15, 16 years ago, I would see these interesting projects where somebody was taking a risk on something and that's a sign of something that could be a really interesting way to work in Buffalo.

But the momentum now, where there were green shoots before, now it's happening all over the city, and people are taking really creative and vastly different approaches to it.

Q: What are the new trends in architecture happening here?

A: That's a conversation we've been having a lot about what's next for Buffalo. If you look at our legacy of really important buildings, for a city of our size, it's really incredible.

That all happened at the high point in our economy. That could be the mansions along Delaware or the great public buildings. That stuff went all the way up till the late '60s, and then we had that significant decline in the economy, and you have a hard time between the 1970s and 2000 finding a significant building.

Then you had this great boom of adaptive reuse and preservation. So the open question is what new work is going to happen in our generation?

Are we going to build anything that in the next generation people will come out to see?

Q: Any thoughts as to what that might look like?

A: We're in a unique period of architectural development, when there's so much happening but it's hard to say what the style is or whether there's potential for a regional style.

It's not a debate I see happening in Buffalo yet. What should be next for Buffalo's architecture? Is there something in Buffalo that would justify a particular architecture, or a particular way we went to reference the city?

I haven't seen a really great discussion yet of how do we add into those neighborhoods in a way that feels both authentic to that neighborhood but that also feels like it's adding value and doing something creative and new. I've heard a lot of discussion about respecting those neighborhoods, but I haven't heard a lot of discussion about what we can do to add to that.

A lot of it seems to be defensive. Elmwood's a good example of it. It's hard to find a new project where people have been really excited about it.

It really doesn't take that much. We're so connected now. Everybody's an architecture critic. So when someone does something right, that will connect with people, and they'll say that's our generation, that's something we can stand behind.

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