By Christian Bret Calleri
Last year, Buffalo concluded an international design competition to create a vision for its beleaguered waterfront. The competition’s goal was laudable: tear down a cancerous piece of mid-20th century infrastructure, in this case an elevated highway along the glorious lakefront Buffalo could one day soon enjoy.
This would be paid for by development, and Buffalo would be well on its way to reclaiming her crown as the finest midsized city in the nation. The governor wanted the Skyway torn down, members of Congress wanted it torn down. So did most Buffalonians. This piece of infrastructure obliterated Buffalo’s connection to the lake and the river. Tearing it down was the key to unlocking the massive potential of the waterfront.
The jury chose two designs that kept the Skyway, celebrated it, and failed to provide critical components of a wonderful urban experience.
Leon Krier once said that nicknames are the proper names for kitsch objects. Think of the modern London skyline and its named skyscrapers – the Walkie Talkie, the Cheese Grater, the Gherkin. These are malignant buildings in any city, especially cities like Buffalo that have suffered at the hands of modernist ideas of urbanism, which focus on inverting the building-street relationship to highlight buildings as objects rather than on figural space. Visit Buffalo Niagara posted a picture on Instagram of the winning scheme. The vase-like object of the scheme had a chicken wing Photoshopped over it. The Skyway had been replaced by a celery stick. Leon Krier’s remark comes to mind.
This is not the way to make cities, nor is it the way to strengthen a city economically. My team’s scheme was chosen as the third place. We focused not on object buildings, but on making urban places with buildings. We designed places for 20,000 new residents, a wharf, an invigorated Cobblestone District, public market and an extension to Canalside. To offset traffic, we proposed cycle tracks, bus rapid transit, water-taxi service and the tax base to pay for it. It was a framework for environmental sustainability and well-conceived development that could change the city forever.
No one got what they wanted, except those who support the false narrative that the only valid architectural ideas are those of contemporary modernists. Don’t be fooled. You can make the difference for your city. A hopeful sign is the recent discussion regarding how to proceed.
Buffalo can still get this right. It need not be the scheme my team put forward, but the timeless, proven ideas it embodied should be. Make places. Demand better for your city, and for your earth. Or enjoy the view from the Chicken Wing and the Celery Stick.
Christian Bret Calleri is an architect and urban designer in Washington, D.C.
Story topics: Buffalo Skyway