Buffalo Benches Project Nears Completion

by / May. 17, 2017 12am EST

A year and a half ago, a group of UB architecture students and their professor launched a small public works project that seemed simple but, like all such projects, proved somewhat more complicated than the students might have expected. What are the design and fabrication challenges? How about long-term maintenance? What permitting issues need to be navigated? How do you rally support from the community?

But introducing students to the complex realities of working in the public realm is part of the curriculum in the Small Built Works Program, created 15 years ago by architect Brad Wales, a clinical assistant professor at UB. Conceived by Wales as a conduit for direct interaction between students in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and city neighborhoods, over the years the program has resulted in real physical enhancements: His students have populated Allentown with elegant bus shelters and bike racks, renovated El Museo Gallery, built the Burchfield Penney’s Front Yard installation, built a granite monument to Frederick Law Olmsted, and much more.

The current project, launched in the winter of 2015 by 16 students, is called the Buffalo Benches Project. The aim of the project is to design, fabricate, and install more than 20 public benches the the city’s First Ward neighborhood. The students were charged with creating designs inspired by the neighborhood’s history and physical environment—the Buffalo River, the grain silos, the railroads, the factories and rowing clubs and housing stock. The designs needed to be useful, too, and durable. 

More students joined in the project as the semesters changed; in the end, 40 students have had a hand in the Buffalo Benches Project. The resulting designs are inspired, incorporating salvaged materials in some cases and in others abstracting themes and materials without sacrificing practicality. They beautifully inhabit the intersection of form and function. And soon, with some luck, hard work, and community support, they will inhabit the intersections of the First Ward.

The fabricated benches were exhibited last December at Gallery 164, Wales’s art space on Allen Street. With the project approaching fruition, they will be exhibited again this Thursday, May 18, 6-9pm, in the atrium at 500 Seneca Street. You should come see them. You should ask how you can help support their installation. You should buttonhole Wales and tell him where he should direct the energies of his next crop of students.

(500 Seneca’s developer, Sam Savarino, is on a long list of the project’s material and moral supporters. Because do-gooders never get half the credit they deserve, here’s that list: the Department of Architecture & Planning at UB, especially Dean Robert Shibley and Architecture Chair Omar Khan; Councilman Christopher Scanlon; Councilman David Franczyk; Rick Smith and Rigidized Metals; Tom Saia and Iroquois Concrete; Savarino Construction; the Barrel Factory; the family of Evan Glickman; the family of Sara Heidinger; Racquel Ananiadis; Laura Kelly; Wade Georgi; Chris Kameck; and Tim and Emily Lowrey, among others.)

Installation of the benches in the neighborhood will take place this spring and summer. (Wales’s students frequently find that the projects engendered in his class stretch beyond the semester, often beyond their matriculation. This, too, is a practical lesson.) Thus will their evolution complete itself: from proposition to conceptual and eventually concrete solution, from gallery exhibition to fixture in a living city.

“We are honored to be working to provide public amenities in the Old First Ward, a venerable working class neighborhood,” Wales says. ”The benches are all inspired by themes in the Old Fist Ward, but they are also meant to be durable and comfortable.”

 Thursday, May 18, 6-9pm 
 500 Seneca Street Atrium