On May 20, 2022, more than 200 graduates crossed the stage as the 50th and largest ever graduating class of the School of Architecture and Planning. Graduates and their families and friends, along with distinguished guests, joined together at UB's Center for the Arts as UB held its first fully in-person commencement season since the start of the pandemic.
An accessible PDF of the commencement program, including a listing of all graduates in the Class of 2022, is available here.
Among the ceremony's distinguished guests were UB Provost A. Scott Weber, who served as degree conferrer, Dean Robert G. Shibley, who presided as master of ceremonies, members of UB and SUNY leadership, partners in the professions, faculty of the School of Architecture and Planning, and members of the School's Dean's Council. Charles L. Davis II, UB associate professor of architectural history, presented the keynote address and was presented with the Dean's Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the School.
Today, you step into a moment of great possibility for our professions and our world. As architects, planners, and developers, you will shape solutions on the world’s greatest problems – from the warming planet to housing affordability to equitable access to healthy food. You will work at the intersection of cultural production, economic opportunity, social and racial justice, environmental sustainability, technological innovation, and public health. You will lead the way into this ocean of opportunity. What a responsibility. What a privilege.
- Dean Robert G. Shibley, SUNY Distinguished Professor, in his remarks to graduates
On the eve of today’s graduation ceremony, I learned, yet again, to commingle my childhood love of Buffalo and its architecture with the inequalities that expose its most vulnerable citizens to greater patterns of hate and violence. It is at this moment—both as a graduate and as a member of the Buffalo community—that I ask you to think about the ethical dimensions that are associated with your new knowledge of the built environment.
- Charles L. Davis II, PhD, addressing members of the Class of 2022
In his address to graduates, Charles Davis II, UB associate professor of architectural history and a leading scholar on race and architecture, reflected on his formative experiences growing up on Buffalo's East Side and attending UB's architecture program, where he learned to combine his training in design and placemaking with an understanding of the racial divisions that mark the urban landscape.
Davis was also honored with the 2022 Dean’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the School of Architecture and Planning, in recognition of his exemplary contributions to the study and practice of the disciplines and to the betterment of our world.
In this moment of a new racial reckoning for our country - and, now, our city after the tragic racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo on May 14, 2022 - Davis reveals just how far racism extends in the history and contemporary culture of our disciplines and across our communities, and the potential for future architects to shape a more equitable, just environment for all.
I want to thank the Dean, Robert Shibley, for extending an invitation to speak to you on this very special day. And of course, I wish to congratulate all of the students who have just completed your degrees here at UB. You should be very proud of your achievement, as this marks the first of many accomplishments yet to come.
You may not know this, but I am a graduate of UB. I also graduated from the School of Architecture and Planning with a Master of Architecture and letters of reference from dear faculty mentors to obtain a PhD in my field. It is not very often that you get a formal opportunity to revisit your life and career from the perspective of graduation. So, I would like to take you on a time machine to help you understand why I think Buffalo was such a formative place for me to go to School, and leave you with a charge for the future as you leave here and make your way through the world.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, on the city’s East Side, near the corner of Grider and East Delavan. As I was growing up, as most children do, I tended to split the city into two areas in my head: those that I could walk to or get to fairly easily; and everywhere else that required our family to drive to visit. You’d be surprised how small that circle of familiarity can be for a young child whose only interest is play. I went to church, visited my relatives’ homes and played with other children outside in an area that, for the most part, only required me to use a bicycle to get around. I learned very early to navigate the city by using landmarks. And we were always to be home before the street lights turned on outside. To this day, I can intuitively tell how much daylight is required to turn a street lamp on or off in this city, and all because it was very unpleasant to come home after curfew.
But this circle of familiarity slowly expanded as I grew older. I went to School #17 for Elementary School, which is situated at the corner of Main Street and Delavan; just across the official border of the East Side of the city. Middle School took me a bit further away from home, as I attended the Olmsted Schools, purportedly for the so-called gifted and talented—although there were days when I saw neither in my classes. High School took me directly downtown, where I attended Hutch-Tech before enrolling at SUNY Buffalo. I loved my time in studios at UB, mostly for the debates that erupted at midnight when you were working on a final project or early late afternoons when you went out to eat with friends after attending classes all day. I took a gap year between my undergrad and graduate degrees to work in the Ellicott Square Building for Robert Traynham Coles, an African American architect who graduated from MIT before coming to Buffalo to build his thesis project. During this time, I had the pleasure of working on the construction documents for the Frank E. Merriweather Library, which still sits at the corner of Jefferson and East Utica.
This was not the first time I had worked for an architect. During my undergraduate years I worked for Mike Brill and Sue Wiedemann at BOSTI Associates, which produced template office plans for telecommuting employees at businesses like Deloitte and Touche and IBM. I had also done some work as a freelance draftsman during my last year of high school when CAD enabled us to complete red lines late at night for architecture firms on the west coast. (I often worked between 8:00pm and midnight to get this work done.) But working for Coles was exciting for me because it was my first time that I could directly contribute to the scope and aesthetics of a project. So you could imagine my dismay when I learned that I would be helping him produce a modernist plan for Buffalo. Modernism was a dated term for me, and I tried week after week to sneak in postmodern features to the design. (Fortunately, none of these ever made it into the building.)
Although I was not initially all that happy with the modernist aesthetic of the library, I have come to appreciate the historical references that were combined to create the overall aesthetic of this building. Coles was adamant that the building plan be constituted by a series of abstract intersecting circular voids; a feature that I learned later on was a physical reference to the African vernacular structures he had visited a few years before. He even consulted with David Hughes, the architect and author of Afrocentric Architecture, to ensure that his modernist structure contained an embodied African sensibility for the neighborhood he grew up in. The synthetic combination of African and modernist precedents was a unique development in Coles’ career and an aesthetic departure from the architectural vocabulary of the neighborhood, including the previous building for the Jefferson branch of the Erie County Public Library system. The previous branch was housed in a beautiful Romanesque structure whose main façade was constructed out of blond bricks surrounding a limestone entry. The entry contains Corinthian columns, Roman Tuscan pilasters, a hip roof with terra cotta tiles and rounded arch windows. It is entirely symmetrical, modest in scale, and of the perfect physical character and scale for a civic structure. I remember sketching it for hours after Mr. Coles encouraged me to do so in order to be better compare the physical contribution of each project.
It was during these years that I learned to see my city through different eyes. The informal observations I made sketching buildings in the city would be formed even later after I went back to UB for grad school. It was during this time that I took an Independent Study with Henry Louis Taylor and Al Price that completely transformed the way I saw architecture. They taught me to combine my training in design and placemaking with an academic understanding of the racial divisions that mark the urban landscape. After taking this class, I thought back to my childhood and remembered all of the spaces that my mother and father had to drive to because they were located so far away from home. However, this time I saw these trips through the lenses of terms such as “redlining” and “food deserts.” (I ask Samina Raja to forgive me for using this latter term, but she had yet to join the faculty to update our language.)
While it was easy to walk to McDonald’s or KFC from my home, and Dollar Stores and Rite Aids were abundant, shopping at a grocery store that was not beleaguered by poor inventory or food with short expiration dates required a long drive. And although my family was devout enough to wear suits and dresses nearly three times a week for religious services, it was nearly impossible to buy a good suit near where I lived. Older residents told me of the Jewish tailors that littered Bailey Avenue when they were growing up, but there were no longer any signs of them when I had to do my own shopping. The closest place that I could go in the city was a small tailor shop on Elmwood Avenue, near the corner of Lexington (which is still there but has yet to reopen after the pandemic). Every other time we had to drive to a department store outside of the city, or visit tailor shops when we were traveling to see relatives to find a good suit. And every single movie premier that I can remember, from when I was seven years old to this year, was located a good 10-15 minute drive from my house. I also learned of the so-called “Black tax” tacked onto goods and services such as gasoline, that cost more when I filled up near the house versus when I did so further away.
Buffalo’s East Side is a racially segregated enclave—and this is no accident. Many architects and planners were hired by municipalities like Buffalo to physically segregate its population. And most of those professionals took those jobs. What will you do if you are asked to design or plan something that continues to segregate the city you live in?
The segregation of our cities is also no secret, as we learned tragically over the weekend. A young white supremacist openly admitted to using the internet to locate the nearest “Black neighborhood” to his rural hometown to engage in a purposeful act of domestic terrorism. This transforms the GIS maps and statistical research conducted by planners a surgical tool in the wrong hands. And what was this young man’s target? In the broadest sense, he fears the kind of America where Black and Brown people can walk around with the same sense of ownership that White Americans used to monopolize. In the strictest sense though, his target was a local grocery store; one of the very amenities that Black residents have had to fight for so that they did not have to drive so far away from home to get the things they needed. Incidentally, the grocery store in question is located right across the street from the Frank E. Merriweather library that I spoke about earlier—the building that has served as such a bright spot in my life in Buffalo.
So, on the eve of today’s graduation ceremony, I have learned, yet again, to commingle my childhood love of Buffalo and its architecture with the inequalities that expose its most vulnerable citizens to greater patterns of hate and violence. It is at this moment—both as a graduate and as a member of the Buffalo community—that I ask you to think about the ethical dimensions that are associated with your new knowledge of the built environment. Your training goes beyond preparing you to know how to design a good building or how to read an urban plan. It has prepared you to identify the invisible forces that make up a place: from the history and pedigree of its buildings to the structural and political forces that maintain inequality and exposure to physical harm. Part of your journey to becoming a professional is learning to shape the world with this understanding in mind. When you walk through these doors, your job is to find a major problem in our world and to work, as best you can to solve it. None of these issues will be solved with “hopes and prayers.” They require legislation, activism, truth-telling, and advocacy. And every now and then, they will require a good building or planning infrastructure to commemorate the good work that must be done to make a city whole. I know you are up to the challenge. I just hope that coming to UB has made you ready to begin doing this work at home.
Thank you for your time and I wish you the best in your future careers as architects and planners. Thank you.
Department of Architecture
Alpha Rho Chi Medal: Anh Shavindya Seneviratne Do (MArch '22)
ARCC/King Student Medal for Excellence in Architectural and Environmental Research: Nicholas Eichelberger (MArch '22)
AIA Medal for Academic Excellence: Nicole Sarmiento (MArch '22)
Department of Urban and Regional Planning
MUP Best Professional Project Award: Emma Cook (MUP '22)
MUP Best Thesis Award: Jacob Kotler (MUP '22)
AICP Planning Excellence Award: Nathaniel Mich (MUP '22)
Gary Day Award, presented each year by the students in the Department of Architecture to an outstanding professor: Daniel Vrana, UB clinical assistant professor of architecture, manager of the Fabrication Workshop
Graduate Planning Student Association Outstanding Faculty Award: Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah, UB associate professor of urban planning
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