Architecture project lends new perspective to grain elevators

By David J. Hill

Published May 5, 2017 This content is archived.

The collection of grain elevators at Silo City is an impressive enough site, the industrial behemoths towering over the Buffalo River. But a project created by UB freshman architecture students this spring lends a unique perspective to the grain elevators, and the landscape.

It’s called Reflection Space, and it’s a design-build project with 105 students in the freshman design studio in the School of Architecture and Planning. The students worked in groups, 10 teams in all, to flesh out designs for, and then build, a collection of small structures that invite the public to experience the silos in a way they previously could not.

Each of the 10 structures — which measure approximately 8-by-8-by-8 feet in volume — was built along a snowshoeing and walking trail at Silo City. The public is invited to experience the creations at an exhibit opening at 1:30 p.m. on May 8.

“At first, they looked almost like toys in this landscape, they were so little. But the students have brought a human scale to that gargantuan site that didn’t exist before,” explains Karen Tashjian, adjunct assistant professor of architecture who is leading the freshman studio along with Matthew Hume, clinical assistant professor of architecture. “They offer the inhabitant a space to pause and take in this breathtaking place.”

Eryn Conlon is part of the group that built “Trussed.” Using a combination of 2-by-6 and 2-by-12 pieces of lumber, this team created a system of trusses that, when viewed from inside, uniquely frame the grain elevators.

“It looks way different from the original design we went off of. It was very rewarding to see how all of our design ideas changed it and brought it to life,” Conlon says. “The idea is to invite people to walk through, wonder what it is, go in and experience different views of Silo City depending on where you’re standing inside it.”

Reflection Space began on a very small scale in the fall semester. Working individually, students were tasked with joining three pieces of wood — a board, a sheet and a dowel — to form a joint with a locking mechanism, without the use of glue or metal fasteners. Next, they developed their interlock into a system that would support the weight of the body. They then were challenged to further develop the system into something that would make space.

Freshman architecture students from the University at Buffalo sit inside one of the 10 structures their design studio made at Silo City as part of "Reflection Space." Photo: Douglas Levere

For the spring semester, Tashjian and Hume chose the 10 systems they felt had the most potential. From there, students worked in teams of 10 to 12 to refine the designs and then piece together the larger scale structures, first in the studio in Hayes Annex and, eventually, at Silo City.

The larger point of the project, however, wasn’t just to build something. It was to teach students about the elusive idea of concept, which is a response to a condition or set of conditions, Tashjian says. Each group had to name its project in an attempt to capture the essence of the concept. They were allowed two words at first, then one.

The concepts for Reflection Space have taken on such themes as views — either direct or fragmented — wind flow, solar path, acoustics, path and collection. They have names like Oculus, Crescendo, Forest and Armature.

The students also had to know what lumber was required, how much it would cost and how it would be cut and assembled. Each group developed construction documents, which isn’t typically covered in architectural education, according to Tashjian. Once the wood arrived from Genesee Lumber Co. in Batavia, students worked in the school’s Fab Lab to plane, sand and precisely cut the wood.

“It’s one thing to design something and see it on paper, but it’s a completely different thing to design something, build it and then experience it. There’s a huge learning process that the students get to enjoy,” Hume says. “Most of these structures use zero fastener-joining systems, so they don’t have any metal parts. It forces the students to think through the details more precisely,” he adds.

Rick Smith, who owns the Silo City property, has provided the space to UB architecture faculty and students in the past as a sort of sandbox in which they can experiment. His company, Rigidized Metals, has partnered with the School of Architecture and Planning on several projects, including Elevator B, a honeycomb-themed tower housing bees that also is located at Silo City.

The Reflection Space structures will remain at the site until they rot away. Toward that end, some groups covered their installations in moss or other natural greenery to help their project fit into the natural landscape. Others didn’t treat the lumber at all. “The dissolving of the project was part of the poetry for them,” Hume says.

Based on the students’ reactions to what they’ve achieved, they’ll be talking about Reflection Space for some time.

“This full-scale build project has engaged them at a profound level that we hope will help carry them forward with the thrill of making, of building, of imagining and of dreaming,” Tashjian says.