In rethinking the decisive role of Buffalo’s post-industrial structures, a differentiation between the relevant and the prescindible may reveal the successive layers of a city’s built history, and ultimately, the value that historical constructions provide to the place identity as material narratives. The hierarchical interaction between the old and the new can take place through myriad tactics. Successful strategies for harnessing the tension between old and new may result in a powerful coexistence between the successive layers of a city’s history. The physical qualities of a city’s architecture constitute its material portraiture, which is experienced physically through multisensory engagement. The experience that emerges through these qualities contributes to an unequivocal character rooted in the city’s archaeology. As a palimpsest of the city’s material memory, post-industrial structures represent a critical chapter of the city’s core identity. The incorporation of a city’s material legacy into the design brief of new interventions and developments supports its material continuum.

In disregarding its material memory, the city loses its foundations. Uprooted constructions lead the way to banal forms of identity. This consideration is especially delicate in Rust Belt cities, where industrial structures embody a distinct material legacy, the preservation of which is not always certain, due partially to their purely functional origin. This origin occasionally resulted in geometries that pose specific challenges for reuse, as buildings designed around the parameters of grain storage may be hard-pressed to accommodate new functions. In some instances, the unique forms of such structures, and their distinctive visual identity can lead to ‘ruin-porn.’ Dismissing the iconic condition of post-industrial structures creates a precarious horizon in terms of history, culture, identity and, ultimately, economic and social progress. Misunderstanding the historic and architectural prominence of these vacant structures leads to their irreversible loss. The combination of the loss of local historical and cultural identity, and the implementation of generic solutions results in a condition of urban anonymity and cultural homogeneity that debilitates any effort to reconstitute or develop a distinctive sense of identity.Footnote 35 (Figs. 9, 10).

Fig. 9
figure 9

(Photo by author)

Industrial building. Buffalo, New York

Fig. 10
figure 10

(Photo by author)

Trico Plant No 1. Buffalo, New York

In addition to the dimensions that time and matter incorporate into the identity of a city’s architectural narrative, the reuse of architectural resources impacts the ties between architectural heritage and progress. Under sedulous preservation and reintegration plans, brick, concrete, and steel assemblies can yield fertile ecosystems that redraw the present and future of these structures, and their capacity to stimulate new forms of occupation.Footnote 36 The need for investment and growth in post-industrial cities around the Great Lakes region can meet a committed consideration in reuse policies of post-industrial structures. Beyond tax considerations, the fertile environment that these vacant structures offer could frame new forms of sustainable growth while preserving and consolidating a strong material identity and, paradoxically, their immaterial memory.

Counterposing an alternative to program obsolescence, Luis Pancorbo and Inés Martín-Robles write that “ruins make visible the tectonic quality of those architectural ‘organisms’ and they therefore bring us closer to understanding their constructive process. […] The ruin of those buildings may be produced through the principle of dismantlement, not via the principle of erosion.”Footnote 37 Pancorbo and Martín-Robles suggest how new ecosystems can emerge from the supporting frame configured by post-industrial sites. The authors state, “While the resilience of the traditional city is confined in purely cultural terms, the survival of the American industrial city is headed towards its mutation into a new, post-urban model which we could tentatively define as a ‘new technical landscape.’ This new environment, necessarily a hybrid of that which is human and that which is not human, gains similar characteristics to Gilbert Simondon’s ‘associated milieu’; it becomes an element which negotiates between technical elements and living systems.”Footnote 38 Pancorbo and Martín-Robles reflect on how these ruined industrial landscapes might “become the support for new ecosystems which make us think about post-urban fertility,” despite current considerations that make us think of such environments as waste. The authors add: “It is the frame on which to build a hybrid, anthropogenic environment which rebalances the relationship between technical, cultural, and biological elements.” Pancorbo and Martín-Robles conclude with a specific proposal for Rust Belt cities in the form of questions: “Could the Rust Belt cities become a laboratory for the development of this new type of urban design and of new, adaptive architectural practices? Are we at the threshold of new types of colonization of this post-urban American environment?Footnote 39

Certainly, these environments could turn into hybrid solutions that balance heritage revitalization and new construction merging technical, cultural, and biological mediums. The resulting conditions would require an explicit understanding of architectural production based on the reuse of post-industrial structures adapted to integrate contemporary practices in the context of post-industrial material, historic, infrastructural, and economic legacies. A combined “hybrid anthropogenic environment” would provide a fertile medium in which architectural production could prove to be more sustainable while preserving material elements which embody identity factors. These hybrid environments would support economic conversion and growth as active agents within their urban fabrics. Post-industrial infrastructures would thus consolidate their material continuity with their local historic-cultural legacy, performing as a distinct cultural, ecological, and economic motor for their future.

The reconstruction of Rust Belt cities necessarily involves the re-use of existing industrial structures as part of sustainable strategies that, in turn, contribute to the preservation of valuable physical attributes linked to the material character of the city. Pancorbo and Martín-Robles write that “the connection between the concepts of ruin and construction as a dialectic pair encompasses a finite linear process. […] To move away from any temptation to aesthetically romanticize ruins, it would be more beneficial to think of this process as cyclical.”Footnote 40 The preservation of existing structures, and subsequently of its material memory, is only possible through some degree of imbrication between the vacant industrial structures and future reuse strategies that focuses significantly on material qualities and the memory they embody. Reconstruction thus cannot be considered a material tabula rasa, but from the organization of foundational strategies for material continuity. The connection between past and present can only be reinforced through the consideration of material memory in our cities that address continuities between foundational actions and future interventions. As stated by Pancorbo and Martín-Robles, “if construction colonizes ruins, the latter would not continue its path towards a slow fade into inexistence but would follow the path dictated by the new work that has colonized it. This fact supposes the survival not only of immaterial memory but also of material memory, within the new cycle of ruin which the new construction will be required to face once it is finished.”

As a large repository of vacant post-industrial structures, the city of Buffalo offers the possibility to renew its vacant industrial structures into sustainable and identifiable environments. Reformulated structures can become once again active parts of the urban fabric, their “obsolescence […] always unfinished and [their] historic value […] forever variable.” Of the two typologies discussed, the material constitution of daylight factories, a combination of brick, concrete, steel, and timber, combined with a regional commercial and residential vernacular of low-rise brick and timber structures, constitute the dominant materiality of the old city. While the great cylindrical forms of the grain elevators haunt the shores of Buffalo’s harbor and remain strong icons for debate, the low, long figures of the daylight factories reside throughout the city’s neighborhoods, at times bordering entire city blocks. Their ambitious scale and geographical dispersion throughout the city make the daylight factories one of the primary purveyors of the city’s material memory.

Two examples illustrate this point. The Trico Plant No 1 is a representative example of recent strategies in the functional reincorporation of industrial structures into the active identity of the city. The Trico complex consists of several daylight factories built in five stages between 1880 and 1954. It occupies almost an entire city block between Washington and Ellicott streets, on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The Trico business was once the largest employer in Buffalo and it continued to operate in the building until 1998. After years of neglect, the large complex is currently being repurposed by the developer Krog Corporation, which recognized the iconic presence of its structure and the singular materiality of its brick-and-concrete gridded façade. Krog is seeking to complete the $87 million project, which includes condominiums, apartments, parking, offices, and education spaces, by 2023. The new complex is posited to become a social, economic, and architectural beacon upon its completion.

The Pierce-Arrow factory complex is another example. The massive structure was designed by Albert Kahn in 1906 as a series of three-story administration and manufacturing buildings. Built mostly of reinforced concrete with brick façades with diagonal sandstone applications, the complex can be considered one of the earliest examples of daylight industrial structures along with the Packard 10 facility that Kahn built in Detroit, MI. The Pierce-Arrow complex was in full use until 1938. In the following years, the complex housed small companies that occupied the subdivided buildings. While the Pierce-Arrow complex is not subject to an integral renovation, as the Trico Plant currently is, different investments and initiatives by local developers Rocco Termini and Kanaka Partners are updating and restoring Kahn’s massive edifice to accommodate apartments and facilities attracting tenants and users to the iconic structure. These structures offer a singular material character which is an indelible part of the city’s identity. The corporations that participate of their refurbishing recognize not only the cultural and historical, but also the economic relevance of preserving the material memory held by these buildings.Footnote 41 Revisiting these cases offers an opportunity to illustrate how “architecture faces a historical-cultural evolution which very often takes the form of a spiral with its periodic comings and goings and the continuous revisions of previous experiences.”Footnote 42 (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11
figure 11

(Courtesy: The Krog Group)

Trico Plant No 1. redevelopment. Buffalo, New York

The successful continuity of industrial structures in Buffalo shouldn’t be about aestheticizing industrial ruins through superficial forms of ‘ruin porn,’ as these are “sterile in terms of architectural design”Footnote 43 but about implementing reuse strategies that promote physical integration into the on-going cycle of construction that contributes to define the material identity of the city. Hybrid strategies that combine industrial structures with new interventions facilitate the creation of material ecosystems that incorporate future aspirations in the continuum of the city’s material memory.

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