Friday, July 6, 2012

The Ambitions of Great Cities

Buffalo City Hall, 2012

It's easy to dismiss great old cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and any number of other Rust Belt cities. They're associated with the labor of strong backs, old technologies and old economies built around heavy manufacturing and the shipping of basic commodities like steel, iron ore and wheat.
It’s true. These cities have had a hard time. Many of the industries that made them great have declined or moved or disappeared altogether. Many of these cities are in regions that experience severe winter weather. So even those who have jobs pull up stakes and move south.
In their primes, these cities were home to great wealth. Their citizens had great ambitions. The well to do endowed schools, libraries, hospitals, museums, concert halls and theaters. They didn't skimp on the design of these buildings, either. They traveled to Europe and brought back not only great art, but also a taste for classical design and grand, awe inspiring buildings.
Buffalo has many great old buildings. It has a magnificent urban park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. It has great colleges and universities and it seems like there’s a church on every corner.
I didn’t have time on my recent visit to Buffalo to visit many buildings. But I did spend a few minutes walking around the Buffalo City Hall, a 32-story deco-style people’s palace. From a distance you’d think you were looking at some giant Soviet ministry building in Moscow; it’s that monumental. But up closer you get a better view of the details that not only give the building character, but do so by featuring aspects of the city’s life, history, commerce and culture.
City Hall was built during the Great Depression at a cost that made it one of the largest, tallest, most modern and most expensive municipal buildings in the country. Can you imagine any city having the guts to embark on such a magnificent municipal edifice in our current times?

Buffalo City Hall (detail), 2012

It was also “green” before the idea of “green” design was even in the vocabulary. The building was sited and its design included a passive air conditioning system to take advantage of strong prevailing winds from nearby Lake Erie. Powered solely by lake winds, air was drawn into the building on the west (lake) side, cooled by the ground temperature in the basement and then vented back up throughout the building.
I don’t know how well the building serves the needs of a contemporary city government. But its presence is just one reminder of the ambitions that great cities once had.

Grover Cleveland, Buffalo’s Contribution to the Presidency, 2012


  1. Buffalo's city hall is beautiful inside as well. I took an architectural tour there one day a few years ago. (It's only a two-hour drive from Toronto.) Great pix and a thoughtful post, Chris.