Buffalo’s waterfront and the opening of the ROM’s Crystal

As a die-hard Maple Leaf fan growing up, I was taught to despise every nearby NHL team, which meant hating Buffalo since it was the Leafs’ nearest competitor. The brainwashing of my youth still creeps in whenever discussion turns to the Queen’s City (why does Buffalo have this nickname in a country that fought to remove itself from the monarchy?). I initially cringed at the cover of the Toronto Star today when I saw the feature on how Buffalo is turning its waterfront around. But it is well worth the read.

Buffalo’s mid-century heyday made it a thriving centre for industrial commerce, from steelmaking to grain milling to its role as a significant transport hub for goods coming and going along the Erie Canal, the historic waterway that linked New York City to the Great Lakes. It was also the way station for many of the country’s pioneers, many of whom passed through Buffalo’s waterways on their journey to points unknown to settle the West.

But that, as they say, is history. Buffalo’s maritime importance began to wane not long after the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 and by the 1970s, with Lake Erie reduced to a large-scale toxic cesspool, dozens of factories in the region closed, throwing unemployment rates to near Depression-era heights. The city hollowed out. Its population plummetted from an historic high of roughly 600,000 to 358,000 by 1982. It sits at about 280,000 today.

As Toronto continues to creep steadily forward on its waterfront redevelopment plan — the master scheme for the foot of the Don River and Portlands, released just a month ago, is still several years away from starting — Buffalo has already begun building what it hopes will be the anchor of a reinvigorated waterfront.

Called Canalside, it builds on the site of the old Erie Canal terminus, complete with heritage designations, a marine museum and residential and commercial development. The first phases will open in August. What’s more, the development, set at $275 million (U.S.), has been pushed forward by a network of funding from federal, state and civic coffers totalling $136.5 million, with the rest for retail, condos, a hotel and offices being courted from the private sector and expected to come online this year.

On the other side of the Star cover page is a feature on the ROM’s new addition set to open next weekend. Christopher Hume writes:

Next Saturday, when Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, finally opens, a wave of anger and contempt will wash over Toronto. It has already started.

Shock and outrage will spew from the pages of newspapers, radio talkshows and blogs.

Never will people have beheld a building so ugly, architecture so appalling, design so bad — or such cheap-looking aluminium cladding this side of a post-war Scarborough semi.

You can see it now, the shaking of heads, rolling of eyeballs, wringing of hands, the frothing, spluttering and snorting.

It won’t be pretty.

But if they know as much about history as they should, Libeskind and his clients at the ROM will be thrilled. This has been the reaction to new architecture since time immemorial.

Way back when Pericles was the “first citizen” of Athens during its Golden Age, 2,500 years ago, the construction of the Parthenon was greeted with less than universal approval.

We may view it as the most important, and certainly the most admired and influential, building in the Western canon, but to many Athenians at the time, it was a symbol of the city’s profligacy and a monument to civic hubris.

Sound familiar?

27 comments

  1. To Christopher Hume….

    Comparing the ROM addition to the Parthenon and the Eiffel Tower is quite a reach. And then including the Eaton Centre; that’s an insult.

    Usually when people know something has turned out not as good as they thought they use the trick of saying that other great works were not liked at first either. Its a way of deflecting the obvious and elevating a turd at the same time. It conveniently ignores the thousands of other occasions when the critics, including yourself, were right.

    So attack the critics as you will but I feel that in less time than a thousand years, possibly in just a few, the verdict will be rendered on this up-end aluminium tool shed that so desperately wants be be a major work.

  2. Oh Scott, it’s like Hume paid you to prove his theory right.

    I’m glad he wrote from this perspective. I like the new ROM, it’s exciting for Toronto. Sometimes I wonder how this city has been able to become a city with so many citizens who moan and groan about anything new or audatious. It proves the city is bigger than any one group, and will move forward anyway.

    Somehow, a little trouble with the cladding of a building like this gives everybody licence to trash it.

    Long live the crystal!

  3. “So attack the critics as you will but I feel that in less time than a thousand years, possibly in just a few, the verdict will be rendered on this up-end aluminium tool shed that so desperately wants be be a major work.”
    …that is, if such a truly unanimous verdict can be summoned up in a pluralistic, post-consensus world.

    Take, for example, Boston City Hall, a 1960s Brutalist opus now apparently redlined for demolition by Mayor Menino, i.e. Exhibit A in “the people’s verdict is in”. Trouble is, a whole power-wielding swath of the design/scholarly/preservationist community is *not* on-side–at least, re the scorched-earth solution that Menino advocates. So it promises to be Exhibit A in “revenge of the philistine” as well.

    The dilemma being that BCH isn’t just a desperate wannabe–it *really is* a major work of its time, albeit a presently ill-functioning/maintained/loved one. Under such circumstances, its defence would rather argue for creatively/sympathetically fine-tuning what exists and allow a morph t/w a more acclimatized younger urban-creative-class POV to do the rest (cf. Shawn Micallef’s “not bad, just misunderstood” approach to modern heritage).

    Now, I don’t want to say Chris Hume *isn’t* overstating the case for the Crystal, and my own strategic POV is more jaded-bystander than “oh, wow” or “eccchhh”. It’s too early. However, when it comes to a generation or two from now, it may not be a matter of whether the Crystal is loved or loathed, but of who’s doing the loving and who’s doing the loathing–and of who’s judging the bigger picture, as well, in which case overagonizing over the “major work or not” issue is immaterial…

  4. I do like (not love) the crystal, but this kind of approach is flimsy, and earnestly comparing the ROM addition to the Parthenon is just asking for it. I wonder how Hume would feel if in two hundred years people have lovingly dubbed the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts a jewel and icon of the city. Oh … he didn’t like it, so obviously it’s still just bad, and its critics aren’t just being conservative moaners.

  5. I found the feature on Buffalo’s rejuvenation to be a tad torqued. My in-laws live in Buffalo and I’ve been driving down there five times a year for the last twenty years. From what I’ve seen, there’s scant evidence of change on the waterfront, apart from a bit of landscape facelifting.

    There are, actually, parts of Buffalo with a heart-beat: Elmwood Avenue is just a great place to hang out. And the old art deco car dealerships and half-abandoned factories on Main Street are to die for –they’ll awaken the inner developer of any self-respecting downtown Torontonian. But the highways along Buffalo’s waterfront really shear off access to Lake Erie, much more profoundly than the Gardiner. More problematic is that those same highways are surrounded by really dodgy parts of downtown Buffalo.

    Murray Whyte should have known that Buffalonians are always cooking up some grandiose civic renaissance scheme, but they mostly miss the mark.

  6. The blinkered boosterism of the Star is frustrating, though I do agree that some experimentation isn’t just okay, but needed. But the ROM addition was quite worthy of being in Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month. More importantly, the ROM Board, Thorsell, and Liebeskind can’t suspend the laws of physics and we will still have some winter for some time yet, so I’m pretty sure we’ll see some injury sometime to some ped or 12 from falling/sliding snow, sleet or ice and as I was lucky enough to quip at a public meeting at the JCC before construction after a design type said they’ll stand behind it, “how about standing under it?”, and I think there’s a civic liability for ok’ing this dangerous overhang over public space.
    And I give it about 5 years till the acid atmosphere of Smogtown starts to etch into the materials spoiling the effect. This was also predictable.
    And I look forward to reclaiming the public space of Bloor and will they repair the pavement?

  7. The ROM is a marvel. For months I’ve been wandering by, looking into it’s tangled impossible belly, watching them put it together, wondering how they know what to do. I will stand underneath it during the next ice storm and tempt sheets of ice to fall on me and if they do it will be worth it because of the magic it has brought to this city. The ROM makes me happy to be a Torontonian and a Canadian. To pull anything this big and exceptional off in this middle-power of a country is miraculous and everybody involved deserves the Order of Canada they will eventually get.

    Kunstler has a lot of good things to say, and some of his Eyesore’s of month are right-on, but a lot of them are too obviously the rants of a cranky old man who hates contemporary architecture.

  8. I stopped taking Kunstler’s architecture critiques seriously when I went down to McCaul street to look at the new OCAD addition for myself. Sadly, its “hyper-entropic avant-garde faggotry” did not reveal itself to me; all I saw was an attractive, and even somewhat humorous building (as far as architecture gets toward humor, anyway). In order to redeem myself, next time I will be sure to eschew the actual, physical building in favor of artist’s renderings.

  9. Well that got you all going didnt it?

    The real proof will be if the addition makes the ROM a better place to see and experience things…..and what it looks like outside doesn’t really matter at all should it? But please, its not the Eiffel tower or the Parthenon. It is a Canadian Tire, perhaps fitting…I look forward to your reviews of the guts.

    Cyrstal? Well, ……metal actually, and if it makes people feel that we are world class then thats nice too.

    OCAD rocks. The ROM, like real crystal may take a long long time to be seen.

    By the way, I love Buffalo and there are some great areas and lots of great history. What it needs is people living downtown to wake it up. Lets hope that redevelopment doesnt kill the wonderful local bars that still exist: http://www.pbase.com/kjosker/buffalo_bars&page=all

  10. The building’s okay. I actually like it, and it’s certainly better than the building it replaced. But for something that’s supposed to add something to our identity as a city, I wish it looked a little less like Denver.

    See what I mean at:

    Here, here and here
    These photos of the Hamilton Building at the Denver Art Museum, opened in October, 2006. No wonder Libeskind was able to come up with it on the back of a napkin. He’d already designed it for another city.

  11. Sandra> They do look similar and it’s a valid point — but then, you could say that about Mies van der Rohe buildings. But nobody says the TD Centre is less important or wonderful for Toronto because it looks like the ones he did in Chicago, Detroit or the Seagram Building in New York. Or that the IM Pei pyramid at the Louvre looks too much like the glass pyramids that connect the CIBC building to Commerce Court in Toronto.

    It’s a style, I think. The way you can recognize a Frank Lloyd Wright or closer to home, a Edward James Lennox building in Toronto.

    Conversely, there was much criticism of the AGO that the Gehry addition didn’t look….Gehry enough.

  12. I really wish that Christopher Hume hadn’t used such an overblown argument to defend the ROM “crystal”. It needs to be debated on its own merits, not placed on a pedestal beside the Parthenon and Eiffel Tower where criticism is out of reach.

    This was a “bait and switch” building. It was supposed to be transparent until the museum discovered all that glass would produce a greenhouse effect with unhappy effects for their exhibits.

    Second, I just think it’s an ugly building, and I am entitled to that opinion. At least as a crystal, it might have reflected surrounding buildings and interacted with them. Now it’s just a lump.

    The OCA building took a while to grow on me, and I wish it didn’t feel so hemmed in by its neighbourhood, but it feels “at home” now.

    The brutalist Boston City Hall may be regarded as a great work of its time, but as a piece of public space it sends the wrong message. Built at a time of much confrontation between the powers that be and many communities in Boston, it was a fortress in a concrete plaza.

    This brings me back to the idea of public space in Toronto. Does the crystal contribute to public space on Bloor Street, or send the message that the ROM doesn’t care about its neighbourhood? Many other developments (the original Eaton Centre design comes to mind) ignore their setting and are rightly criticized for it.

    Should we accept an attack on a neighbourhood just because someone claims it is great architecture? This could lead to all manner of invasive developments hiding under claims or artistic greatness, however that might be measured.

  13. It is the job of these sorts of architecture projects to draw attention to issues in the built environment that are sometimes overlooked, particularly by the general public. The debate the Crystal is sparking means it is already a successful work.

    And to throw another example into the mix, the new Scottish Parliament is basically universally reviled by the locals (in part due its enormous price tag) and yet won the hearts of the critics (who might have some idea what they are talking about), since it won the Stirling Prize.

    I, for one, am quite curious about this apparent rift between public taste and the informed opinions of experts.

  14. In fact, many great visual artists have a signature style — the Impressions, Group of Seven, Moore, Warhol, Mark Rotko, etc., etc. Architects are no different, but it is more evident for those whose designs are strikingly different from the rest.

  15. Maybe Kunstler and Hume can rent office space opposite of each other. Hume can take a nice corner office in the Crystal (he would have a lot of corners to choose from) and Kunstler could set up space in the tasteful and classic Hyatt across the street. Then they can both stare each other down with contempt, whiling away the hours, equally sauced from their own private reserves of expensive whisky, and craft the lovely polemical sentences that they are so good at writing and launch them like rotten eggs at each others windows. Kunstler would employ his favorites “clusterfuck” and the above-mentioned “fagottry”, and Hume would throw in an occasional “the enduring ignorance of humanity in the face of an emanicaptory architecture of freedom”.

    The rest of us could walk the streets of Toronto, taking in the new buildings one by one, enjoying the changing face of our city and formulate our own opinions on the buildings. Then we can have nice conversations, like this one, without pompous and cantankerous critics constantly telling us that ‘we just don’t understand”. That would be nice.

  16. “But please, its not the Eiffel tower or the Parthenon.”

    If you really want to niggle about things, neither is New City Hall. Or Old City Hall, for that matter, or Osgoode Hall, or…

    Doesn’t mean I’d sacrifice them.

  17. Shawn, are you sure the Commerce Court connection you’re talking about is by I.M. Pei? The tower is, but the street-level link is by Zeidler Roberts. Perhaps the similarity to the Louvre is architectural humour.

    I think there’s a fine line between style and repetition. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim looks quite different from his office buildings; I give Mies some leeway because his very similar buildings served very similar functions. I think Gehry did get too repetitive, to the detriment of individual buildings, so I’m very glad he took a different approach with the AGO.

    Libeskind is awfully close to repetition, but it looked better than I expected when the hoarding came down on Bloor. Next question is whether it’s functional — i.e. if the interiors work well as an extension of the ROM. And how it’s perceived in a few decades depends a lot on how many more buildings Libeskind builds just like it.

  18. I love some of the arguments here. “Kunstler doesn’t like OCAD so I can’t take him seriously” and “Sure City Hall is not the Parthenon but I don’t want to get rid of it either.”

    When it comes to the ROM, Hume is full of shit. The ROM went from “transparent” to “some transparent, some translucent” to “It was never 100% glass” to “interlocking glass-and-steel prisms” to “20% of the outside wall will be transparent” to “some expected the entire Crystal would be glass, which was never the case.” I wonder how often Libeskind sucks Hume’s cock to get such uncritical, bullshit fluff pieces in the Star.

  19. ^o-kaye, way to bring the discourse down to blowjob metaphors.

    my two cents:

    re: everyone who said that the ROM is not in the same league as the parthenon.

    The parthenon is not universally respected because it is a simple greek temple with doric columns, it is respected because it is symbolic of the Hellenic enlightenment, Athenian cultural prowess and it’s 2,500 friggin’ years old. There were probably better examples of ancient Greek architecture but they are almost all long gone. The temple of Hera at Selinunte in Sicily is in better shape and of similar architecture but almost nobody talks about it. If we treat the Parthenon as a building and not an idea, then we can have a real comparison on the architectural merits of the ROM Crystal.

    re: Kunstler

    James Howard Kunstler is a curmudgeonly hack who is hopeleessly infatuated with an idyllic small town America that never existed. His use of profanity in serious argumentation undermines his abilities as a writer even more than it does in VICE magazine. His writing often shows a disdain for black people and a thinly veiled homophobia. He is a crackpot that nobody should listen to and it sucks that he is “on our side” of the urbanist debate.

  20. You’ve got to be the angriest person on the internet, thickslab. I don’t understand the sudden rage — everybody’s just expressing opinions on the ROM. Some like, some dislike, nobody is yelling at each other.

  21. As an aside, Hume got his facts wrong about New City Hall. Wright and Gropius never disparaged it. They slagged the first design from the 50’s. Then the city hired the Finnish guy (can’t remember his name) who designed what we have now. Wright died in 1959, so he wasn’t around when the final thing was built.

    Not really related to the ROM discussion, it just makes me feel good to correct an architectural expert.

    The ROM crystal is not great, but fine and interesting to look at. An improvement over what was there before, anyway.

  22. Andrew: You’re right that Hume’s sentence “When New City Hall was finished…” is wrong given the dates; it almost looks like a misquote of the Wikipedia article.

    But the final winning design (by Viljo Revell) was chosen in 1958, and apparently Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t like that design either — claiming future generations would say “This marks the spot where Toronto fell.”

  23. Who is this Kunstler a-hole and why does he think it’s okay to call a building “faggotry”? Is it also okay to desribe something as “kikery”? niggertry?

    And if sunlight damage was the reason for the change to aluminum siding from glass for the ROM addition, couldn’t they have just used tinted glass – like sunglasses?

  24. I’d still give Kunstler due credit for seeing through the easy seductions of starchibabble, at least insofar as it dovetails into his broader eco-minded world view–trouble is, his “seeing through” is on behalf of easy knocks rather than greater nuances. And here’s the big paradox–he’s guilty of the same thing as the modernists he loathes, in that he treats his “eyesores” as objects rather than actualities, as photographic images devoid of any life other than that of the curmudgeon presently observing them. It’s a little like us judging our fellow students and co-workers and transit-riders through the prism of celeb-column snark.

    Ah, I guess “nuances” spoil the eyesore-spotting/judging fun. (Even though they may serve a sort of “perceptual ecology”, i.e. proving that the easy knocking of a fait accompli of a building can be as “wasteful” as the easy knocking-down of a building.)

    Oh, re FLW and New City Hall: remember who we’re dealing with. Beyond his own natural egotism, FLW’s POV on self-conscious whippersnapper exercises like the New City Hall competition probably amounted to a 1958 version of Kunstler-curmudgeonism, all things considered…

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