Dec
23

Digging in the Neighborhood

By Chris

by Jonathan Gunderlach, MA Architectural Historian

If you stumbled upon HAZEx in the field, you would probably find a
group of people decked out in dirty duds and carrying shovels.  But
not always.  Instead of into the dirt, we dig into archives and
libraries to unearth treasure that lies in plain sight.  This past
summer we were in Buffalo, New York, investigating the Shoreline
Apartments for an Historic American Building Survey report.  Shoreline
has a reputation as an ugly duckling with a dangerous reputation.  It
sticks out like a sore architectural thumb.  Sheathed in brown
“corduroy” concrete block, rows of staggered townhouses stand on
minimally landscaped superblocks within a stone’s throw of downtown
Buffalo.

Our research into Shoreline follows the a basic theme of archeological
and historical investigation:  rediscovering the things that get lost
over the years.  Unlike ah-ha moment when artifacts are sifted from
test pit soil, our appreciation for Shoreline was gradual.
Surprisingly, period documents revealed an overwhelmingly positive
response to Shoreline.  Just what was the hub-bub about the apartment
complex that is regularly covered in the police blotter?

In two words, the historical significance is about Paul Rudolph.  Paul
Rudolph may not be a name that rings the bell of your typical
shovelbum.  But the citizens of Buffalo probably recognize him as the
architect of their notable public library.  Dusty architectural
historians certainly recognize him for a raft of other well-known, if
not well-appreciated, buildings throughout the nation.  Initially
Shoreline constituted a minor part of a much larger redevelopment plan
designed by Rudolph.  Known as the
Buffalo Waterfront Development Plan, the scheme was an ambitious urban
renewal and revitalization project that included an marina ringed by
high-rise residential towers.  Penned in his sumptuous linear style,
Rudolph’s presentation drawing of the Waterfront plan appeared in
popular architectural magazines and in monographs of Rudolph’s work.

Paul Rudolph (1919-1997) first worked in Florida designing homes in
the 1940s.  Frank expression of structure, generous use of glass, and
innovative use of materials (he claimed to be the first to bend
plywood for a sculptural effect) put Rudolph firmly in the modernist
camp.  He attracted larger commissions and was eventually tapped as
Chairman of Yale University’s Art and Architecture School.  He
developed his interest in complex, angular plans and corresponding
facades.  Embracing concrete as a primary material, Rudolph strove to
define space by use of flat, textured planes pierced with voids.  His
designs for the Christian Science Student Center at the University of
Illinois and the Boston Government Service Center typify this look,
which is echoed at Shoreline.  Rudolph was also interested in modular
design, which he coined “twentieth-century brick.”  He proposed using
the complete living space the irreducible building unit.  Early
designs for Shoreline included apartment units designed to the
dimensions of a tractor-trailer to be built off site and then trucked
to the site for assembly.

Rudolph was ambitious in his designs, which did not always live up to
the finished product.  Shoreline was not modularly built; instead
stands conventional frame and masonry construction. Shoreline’s
corduroy exterior made of ribbed concrete block is unlikely to be
“self-cleaning” as Rudolph claimed.  Further, Shoreline’s master
planning, which intended to knit a residential community to the city’s
downtown business district, did not live up to expectations.  Its lack
of success does not rest completely on Rudolph’s shoulders.  In
Shoreline’s rise and fall can be read a national story of urban
dilemmas and solutions.

In a following post, I’ll write about some of those broader historical
currents that shaped the Shoreline Apartments.  Shoreline’s historical
context will show why an ugly-duckling apartment complex should be
seen as a historically significant artifact like an archeological
relic popping out of the sifted soil.

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