Wright-ish

At the dawn of the 20th century, Buffalo was a booming metropolis, bolstered by its position at the head of the Erie Canal and electrified, literally and figuratively, by output from Niagara Falls’ pioneering hydro plants. At the dawn of the 21st century, Buffalo is a different city.

Its population of 276,000 is about half of what it was at its peak in 1950; it’s ranked as the third-poorest city in the country, after Detroit and Cleveland, with a poverty rate hovering just below 30 percent.

Still, the Buffalo I discovered when I finally made my first trip there this summer was a pretty and vibrant place. The annual Garden Walk filled the city’s more gentrified residential neighborhoods with throngs of strollers determined to drop in on as many luxuriant backyards as possible. A newly opened Gwathmey Siegel–designed museum, the Burchfield Penney Art Center, displays the work of extraordinary western New York artists in airy, sunlit galleries. Buildings once abandoned have taken on new lives, most famously the 19th-century Methodist church that the folk musician Ani DiFranco turned into a home for her Righteous Babe Records and the Hallwalls Gallery. On the highway heading south from the city, new wind turbines have sprouted on the sites of dead steel mills, harbingers of an industrial renaissance that has yet to arrive.

My visit was orchestrated by the local visitors’ bureau, which assiduously steered me away from the impoverished east side. The city it wanted me to see was the Buffalo of 100 years ago: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo, the subject of endless tourism promotion. And the most impressive cluster of the architect’s work is the Darwin Martin Complex, built for the Larkin Soap Company executive who oversaw Wright’s design of the landmark 1906 Administrative Building, his first commercial project. One evening, I joined a tour group that gathered in the latest addition to the complex, the Greatbatch Pavilion, a minimalist glass sidekick to the Wright buildings, designed by the architect Toshiko Mori and completed early this year. It houses an interpretive exhibition, and its long glass wall acts as lens through which to view Wright’s architecture. I was impressed not only with Mori’s beautiful structure but with the Martin House Restoration Corporation’s smart decision to commission a visitors’ pavilion that was in no way derivative of Wright’s work.

Completed in 1905, the main complex consists of five linked buildings: the Darwin D. Martin House, a long, low Prairie-style home; the Barton House, built for Martin’s sister and her family; plus a carriage house, a conservatory, and a pergola. When you enter the front door of the main house, which is still in the process of restoration, you look straight down the 100-foot length of the pergola to the statue of Winged Victory that lords over the conservatory. The problem with this rather spectacular bit of architectural theater is that while the Martin House is the genuine article—an extant historic structure—the pergola, the conservatory, and the adjacent carriage house were all demolished in 1962. What you’re actually seeing from the front door of the real house is a painstaking re-creation, a forced perspective, not of space but of time.

The team that re-created the buildings that had been destroyed to make way for an apartment complex worked from Wright’s original drawings and archival photos. It sourced the long, skinny Roman bricks Wright favored from a brickyard in Ohio, struggling to make the output of a modern production process look as mottled and irregular as bricks from historic, coal-fired, beehive kilns. I can’t fault the workmanship or seriousness. But it’s one thing to be in Mori’s new pavilion and quite another to be in Wright’s new pergola. John Courtin, a Buffalo lawyer and neighborhood resident who became the first director of the Martin House Restoration Corporation, argues that for anyone under the age of 50, the re-created portions of the complex offer a unique opportunity to “experience a new Wright building.” Maybe, but I find the experience of being in a brand-new old building disconcerting.

According to an informational booklet prepared by the corporation, “this represents the first Wright restoration with a mandate to reconstruct entirely demolished structures.” A mandate from whom? I asked Mary F. Roberts, the corporation’s current executive director. Roberts concedes that the word mandate might be “misinterpreted.” There was no permission given by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which oversees and promotes restoration of Wright buildings, or the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which oversees Taliesins, East and West, and the architect’s archives. “It was our self-imposed mandate,” explains Roberts, acknowledging that the re-creation of demolished buildings, along with the new construction of previously unbuilt works, is a “hot philosophical discussion in the Wright world.”

Well, yes, the situation presents a philosophical quandary. Once a landmark piece of architecture is gone, is it better to re-create it or let its absence tell the story? Does re-created experience trump the value of authenticity? Does the presence of facsimile buildings undermine the integrity of original ones? I understand why the corporation felt compelled to replace the irreplaceable, but there’s something weirdly soulless about the freshly minted historic structures.

After my Buffalo visit, I found my way to the Guggenheim’s recent exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward, and as I walked the spiral, I reflected on the endurance of Wright’s work and the vitality of his myth. The museum show featured its own re-creations, newly built models and computer-generated animations, including a digital fly-through of his unbuilt campus for the Arizona state capitol. I started thinking about other approaches to Wright re-creation, particularly recent works of fiction: the best-selling novel Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan, largely told from the perspective of his murdered paramour, Mamah Borthwick Cheney; and T. C. Boyle’s The Women, a broader account of the architect’s love life. Is a reconstructed Wright building also a work of fiction, like the stories by Horan or Boyle?

Buffalo’s hopes for future prosperity are deeply intertwined with its Wright buildings, original and reincarnated. Beyond the Martin property, there is a boathouse the architect designed in 1910, for the University of Wisconsin, that has newly opened on the shores of Lake Erie; and the 2004 construction of the Blue Sky Mausoleum at Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, a scheme originally commissioned by Martin in the 1920s. But where do you draw the line? What if a developer wanted to build one of Wright’s more outragous projects? What if, say, Donald Trump or Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed decided he wanted to build Mile High Illinois?

“The vast majority of those absolutely should not be built,” declares Courtin, who will address the topic at the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy Conference being held this month in Buffalo. But if re-creating Wright’s pergola or his boathouse is, in Courtin’s view, necessary to give Buffalo “distinction,” why not go all the way? Buffalo’s greatest architectural tragedy was the demolition of the Larkin Building in the 1950s. Had the building survived—given its progressive layout, with offices ringing a sunlight-filled atrium—it would have surely become a prime candidate for adaptive reuse, perhaps as a hotel.

Believing that the idea of re-creating the Larkin Building is a little outlandish, I e-mailed Roberts about it, and she levelly replied: “It would be an intriguing prospect to rebuild the Administration Building on the site of the original Larkin structure. There has been much talk about re-creating that building for a number of years. ” I’d love to see a new Larkin Building, but not a historic re-creation. What if an architect like Toshiko Mori got the commission? Perhaps if Buffalo truly craves distinction, it should build a 21st-century reinvention of the Larkin, an incubator for a future that’s not so directly dependent on the past.

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