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Sculpture of folded steel rises in the shadow of Buffalo's grain elevators

by jmaloni

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Fri, Sep 27th 2013 07:00 am
UB photo
UB photo

In a studio at the foot of the towering silos, UB architects are designing structures that explore new uses for textured steel

University at Buffalo architecture faculty members Nick Bruscia and Chris Romano commute to a studio in an awe-inspiring location: Silo City, where iconic grain elevators rise like giants on the banks of the Buffalo River.

In this classically Rust Belt workspace, the friends and colleagues have been designing - and fabricating - structures that explore new uses for textured steel.

Their latest project: A 20-foot-high trapezoidal wall woven together from 152 pieces of super-thin, textured steel. Each metal panel has been folded into one of 44 different shapes, and the geometric patchwork gives the sculpture a kaleidoscopic feel.

The wall, designed through computational modeling, was erected this August and September near Silo City's Ohio Street entrance. It's special in part because it's crafted from an ultra-thin, strong and lightweight stainless steel. The material was manufactured and fabricated by Western New York's Rigidized Metals Corp., which embosses metal with various geometric patterns to make it more durable and attractive.

"This type of steel is typically used in ornamental applications for interior or exterior cladding, and we've turned it into a self-supporting structure," said Romano, MArch, a research assistant professor in UB's department of architecture. "It's a research project: It faces Lake Erie, and we're going to see how the material performs in high winds and winter weather."

The wall, located next to Rigidized Metals' headquarters on Ohio Street, will be a permanent installation that functions as a gateway into Silo City.

It's a fitting landmark: A project that reinvents an industrial material, on a site that has become a symbol of Rust Belt innovation. The cluster of grain elevators has become a hotspot for creative thinking over the past few years, with entrepreneurs converting one of the silos into a rock climbing facility and hosting an art and cultural fair called "City of Night" inside the massive buildings. Last year, UB architecture and planning students built a stainless steel tower nearby to house a colony of rescued bees.

To work in the shadow of grain elevators - to walk or glance outside and see them sprawling skyward - is a remarkable experience, said Bruscia, MArch, MFA, a UB clinical assistant professor of architecture.

"It's interesting; it's fantastic - the time of my life, really," he said. "Being down here and working alongside all of these people is inspiring. And the grain elevators - there's so much history around them, and their scale is amazing."

He and Romano are proud to be a part of Buffalo's storied industrial identity. Rigidized Metals funded the wall's construction, and company owner Rick Smith has been keenly interested in the architects' work in exploring new uses for the firm's materials. The School of Architecture and Planning, meanwhile, has benefited from the company's ability to bend and fold metal in innovative ways.

"The collaboration with Rigidized Metals advances our material knowledge, and at the same time, their product," Romano said. "They are experts in the field of metals, and they taught us a ton about the material and how it behaves. We brought an energy and curiosity to their manufacturing process, finding opportunities and areas where we could try new things."

"It's been a lot of fun to work with these guys," said Chip Skop, director of sales and marketing at Rigidized Metals. "They've really injected a lot of energy into our business."

The partnership is one result of Department of Architecture Chair Omar Khan's efforts to cooperate with local manufacturers - outreach that has led to new courses and research on materials from metals to terra cotta.

The partnership began in 2012, when Bruscia and Romano taught graduate seminars asking students to think about the qualities and applications of textured steel.

Then, the professors and students designed metal window screens to outfit their studio on the second floor of a formerly abandoned Silo City office building. Each screen bears a pattern of holes or stamped designs that reflect and channel light in unique ways.

The Silo City gateway wall, titled Project 2XmT, is the first in a line of prototypes that Bruscia and Romano are hoping to create. The project recently received funding as a finalist in SKIN, a computational fabrication competition tied to the ACADIA 2013 Adaptive Architecture conference that UB's architecture department is co-chairing this fall. The team is currently developing a new prototype that will be exhibited at the conference. Both projects used computer-aided design to weave together complex, geometric components.

In addition to Bruscia and Romano, UB architecture students Dan Vrana and Phil Gusmano have been active in developing and constructing the sculptural walls.

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