19 November 2008

Industrial Modern

I confess to a mild fascination with old industrial cities and districts to the point where I was a bit disappointed, during a trip to Pittsburgh in September, to learn that the steel mills, which had been located along the Allegheny River (or was it the Monongahela? I already forget) and had been shut down in the early 1970s, were in fact torn down. I would have loved to see them.

I love the handful of Precissionist paintings of Charles Sheeler's that I've seen; they turn industrial buildings into modern art (there are a bunch here).

One of the stories on the Times' list of most-emailed stories was Nicolai Ouroussoff's Arts & Leisure piece about Buffalo, an old industrial city if there ever was one. Here's an excerpt:

Buffalo was founded on a rich tradition of architectural experimentation. The architects who worked here were among the first to break with European traditions to create an aesthetic of their own, rooted in American ideals about individualism, commerce and social mobility. And today its grass-roots preservation movement is driven not by Disney-inspired developers but by a vibrant coalition of part-time preservationists, amateur historians and third-generation residents who have made reclaiming the city’s history a deeply personal mission.

At a time when oil prices and oil dependence are forcing us to rethink the wisdom of suburban and exurban living, Buffalo could eventually offer a blueprint for repairing America’s other shrinking postindustrial cities.

Touring Buffalo’s monuments is about as close as you can get to experiencing firsthand the earliest struggles to define what an American architecture would look like.

The city’s rise began in 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal, which opened trade with the heartland. By the end of the 19th century the city’s grain silos and steel mills had become architectural pilgrimage sites for European Modernists like Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, who saw them as the great cathedrals of Modernity. In their vast scale and technological efficiency, they reflected a triumphant America and sent a warning signal to Europe that it was fast becoming less relevant.

The whole thing is worth reading (here). One of the points it made implicitly was about Frank Lloyd Wright's longevity. Ouroussoff writes about FLW's Dwight D. Martin House. Gina looked at the photo and said she really didn't love the house; I agreed. But then we looked at the date -- it was built in 1905, a modern building that predates Modernism. Although we still don't love it, you have to admire the innovation. -- ta


Ed Healy said...

Tom and Gina: I'd like to invite you to visit Buffalo and check out the Martin House. I'll be surprised if you still don't love the house after walking down the pergola into the conservatory. It's a breathtaking experience. While here you can visit the Saarinen's Kleinhans Music Hall, Bunshaft's addition to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (along with their collection of modern masterpieces), Buffalo's Art Deco City Hall and Yamasaki's M&T Bank. We can also stop by the new Burchfield-Penney Art Center (Gwathmey Seigel) and the Greatbatch Pavilion (Toshiko Mori) at the Martin House.

I'd love to show you around.

Ed Healy
Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau

thebubbreport said...

You guys would appreciate the work of julie bargmann (dirtstudio.com). She was on of my studio critics in landscape architecture and she fights to reinterpret these historic sites without doing the usual Superfund/Brownsfield erasure that so often happens to polluted sites. She's done a lot of work and student studio projects in PA. Another one of her projects was Ford River Rouge in Michigan.

I love the look of these old structures as well. It reminds me of that depressed town in "The Full Monty" that had all that great cinematography with the factories and canals in the background.


annkent said...

I grew up in Buffalo among countless architectural gems (designed for example by Louis Sullivan; McKim, Mead and White; and Frank Lloyd Wright). Buffalo also hosts the lovely buildings of the Pan-American Exposition of 1908 (?), e.g. the Albright Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Historical Society, and the Buffalo Science Center. I am now in New Jersey and I must say I literally ache for Buffalo where I was surrounded daily by the architectural beauty of many styles. The only city in New Jersey that may be comparable, although to a lesser extent, is Princeton. Finally, the Darwin D Martin complex in Buffalo has been breathtakingly restored and the tour is educational on many levels as well as inspirational.