Daily Archives: October 18, 2015

Buffalo & Rochester

Continuing our tour of cities that were really important 100 years ago but not so much now, we cruised through downtown Buffalo and Rochester.  I think cities such as these are where you often find some of the best architecture and art in this country: they had a lot of money to spend back then, when you could still buy great European art, and when there seemed to be more clients who cared about architecture.

I’ve already posted the great Wright and Richardson buildings here, so the obvious completion of the architecture trifecta is the Guaranty Building, one of Sullivan’s best.  Simple, elegant, beautifully proportioned, it really stands out against the banal post-war buildings near it.  DSCF1913 DSCF1902

I was told to go see the Ellicott Square building by a few people – a full block building with a central skylit atrium.DSCF1924


The train station, in context:DSCF1933

Down the Niagara River past the Falls, The New York State Power Vista is where the big American and Canadian hydropower plants face off against each other.  The sheer scale of these dams is worth a visit.DSCF1724

And inside the excellent visitors’ center, there is a surprise:  A Thomas Hart Benton mural, which is reminiscent of those in Kansas City.DSCF1737

Rochester doesn’t have a great reputation, and the downtown is not compelling – mainly mediocre buildings from all eras.  But there are highlights.

We came to Rochester to see the Kahn Unitarian Church, and the Broad Street Bridge, which when originally built, was an aqueduct which carried the Erie Canal over the Genesee River.  It was later used to carry the subway across, and with the addition of the top roadway level, converted to a vehicular bridge (also good for the parking of small trailers. DSCF1974

The Andrews Terrace apartment building started life in the 1970s as downtown luxury apartments which didn’t fly, and is now Section 8 housing.  What struck me is that many current architects are playing games with angles, and here is a 40-year-old building which anticipated many of the moves, quite elegantly and simply, since there were no computers to facilitate needless complications.  I can’t find who the architect was.DSCF1984

I think it’s pretty compelling when glimpsed from down the street.DSCF1949

Rochester has some buildings which I don’t think are very good, but they’re kind of fun:DSCF1990

especially this one, which is open to many interpretations.  I thought Barad-dur, or maybe those fighters in Star Wars where the wings fold up.  Greta thought was Aragorn’s crown.  I have to admire the originality and chutzpah – never seen anything quite like it.DSCF1952



Since we reached Pennsylvania we’ve done a pretty good job of staying off interstates.  We travel a little more slowly, but we see things and places.  Here are few places that haven’t gotten their own posts.

Once again John Wenzel was our guide around the Ligonier Valley, showing us things that we would never have found our own.  An 18th century grist mill.DSCF0790

and the amazing California Furnace from 1850, an early iron furnace as the industrial revolution kicked into gear.  Boullee out in the woods. DSCF0820


here John and Greta give it scale.   DSCF0822

On the way into Pittsburgh, John pointed out where strip mine sites were now being filled and built upon.  We realized that strip mines become strip malls.DSCF1004

Heading north towards Buffalo, we arrived at Punxsatawney, home of Phil the groundhog.  We caught a glimpse of Phil (or who they say is Phil, along with a bunch of other groundhogs who may or may not be Phils).DSCF1544

Among the many icons of Phil in the town, we noticed this one, which looked strangely familiar.DSCF1548 DSCF8616

The large, adorable, rodent gods seem to be taking over the country, but in Punxsatawney, unlike South Dakota, they are fighting back:DSCF1549

In upstate New York, we drove on Route 20, which hit the northern end of many of the Finger Lakes, a part of the state I (and most downstaters) had never visited.  Canandaigua had some cool houseboats DSCF2130

While Geneva fell into the recurring category of Places that Used to be Prosperous, but still had some interesting buildings.DSCF2145 DSCF2147 DSCF2148

Waterloo had some nice houses in various states of repair.DSCF2152

Skaneateles appears to be the prosperous resort town on the road, with beautifully restored houses, and a thriving main street – the first place we could find a cup of coffee, in the Land that Starbucks Forgot.DSCF2154 DSCF2155 DSCF2160

and in Sharon Springs, this highly-wrought and astoundingly maintained church.  Nice church, interesting steeple, but I’m not sure they’re getting along.DSCF2219

There we were, far away from the City and coastal civilization as know it, and Ithaca was still too far away to be worth visiting.  It really is the most isolated spot in the east.

Rochester Unitarian Church

Lou Kahn buildings are really hard to see.  There aren’t very many, and they are all in hard-to-reach places, like Bangladesh, or Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  I’d only managed to see six before starting this trip and I hope to catch four or five more this year.  At the top of the list is the Unitarian Church in Rochester.

Because they are so hard to visit, we all know these buildings from publications, and so our images of them are pristine and perfect – brand new architecture, before the weather or human habitation has had a chance to have an impact.  Many of Kahn’s buildings are also maintained in fairly pristine condition – art museums, important institutions – so it is quite amazing to visit one of his masterpieces, and see how it looks after 55 years years of hard use.  DSCF2077

From both the exterior and interior, the quality of the design is most apparent in the rigor and clarity of the parti.  An entry axis, a longitudinal axis that links the major spaces, and the classrooms clustered around the sanctuary.  That is pretty much it, and the development of the idea in the section and the tectonics is what makes the building extraordinary.

The big spatial/symbolic idea is in the sanctuary.  The four corners are voids under towers with clerestories above.  The concrete lower ceiling is a cross, referring back to the ideal of centralized churches.  DSCF1999


DSCF2039The plan and section are simple and powerful – big idea, beautifully articulated.

The rest of the interior mirrors this simplicity – the lobby, meeting rooms, transition spaces, classrooms.DSCF2026




a classroom

a classroom

The Miller house in Columbus would have been an austere modernist exercise without Alexander Girard’s furnishings;  here you could argue that when new and empty, the church was severe and perfect, but now there is a relationship between the building (concrete, wood, masonry) and the colorful small-scale stuff (some of which – acoustical panels and space heaters – were necessitated by the materiality of  the building fabric ) that the congregation has added.  It’s noticeable that the order of the design is maintained, despite the random stuff that accumulates in any building that is being well-used.

The exterior looks much as it did when built.  The square plan of the sanctuary is apparent, with the four towers rising up from within the mass of classrooms.DSCF2108

The entry shows something Kahn is always playing with – seemingly symmetrical, but not quite – the off-center center.  Tempering the formality of the axes, showing an inflection towards accommodation.DSCF2070

The integration with the landscape is not something I’d thought about before.  It’s remarkable when seen from down the hill, the soft green of the landscape playing off the severity of the brick.DSCF2096

the office / meeting room wing

the office / meeting room wing

Has a fire exit ever looked this good?DSCF2088

It was instructive to see this the day after the Darwin D. Martin house.  There are similarities – the axiality, the use of massive brick piers/towers instead of walls, the solidity of corners – but the big difference is in the development.  Wright articulates the articulations, with an ever-cascading sequence of scales at which the idea can be developed.  Kahn goes about two levels of articulation down from the parti.  Wright looks for every opportunity to play with the idea, Kahn boils it down to just the essentials.