Original Article by Buffalo Spree
“The Avant is interesting because when I first came to Buffalo I sat across the street and watched them put up [the Dulski Federal Building] and thought to myself, ‘I want to be here long enough to be able to tear that down and build something beautiful.’ That was the ugliest building in the history of Buffalo,” says David Stieglitz.
What Stieglitz and Uniland Development did was even more interesting than tearing down the old Dulski Federal Building. Instead, they recycled it as the Avant, an elegant reflective glass tower, which won this year’s Golden Brick Award from Buffalo Business First. In addition, Stieglitz Snyder Architecture was a finalist in the Brick by Brick Best Education Project for their work on the Bennett Park Montessori School, a project that doubled the size of the original school. Several years ago, another one of the firm’s educational projects, the Charles R. Drew Science Magnet, was recognized as the best school design in the country.
For a man who generates ideas likes sparks from a flywheel, David Stieglitz is remarkably calm and softspoken, although he finds much of urgent and consuming consequence in the world. Since establishing an environmental design firm in Switzerland in the mid-1960s with his late wife and fellow architect Frances, Stieglitz has strived to look at the larger context and to understand how not to destroy while building, a sort of architectural version of the Hippocratic oath. In the process, he has become an environmental problem solver, outspoken social critic, urban utopian visionary, educational reformer, and, not incidentally, an acclaimed and award-winning architect. For Stieglitz, these roles are all interconnected.
After moving to Buffalo in the late sixties, Stieglitz worked to establish the School of Architecture at UB and served as one of its first faculty members. While teaching and practicing architecture, he also spent four years writing an environmental and economic plan for Erie County and led a project to remediate the pollution from Bethlehem Steel by fueling their blast furnaces with beneficiated (pulverized) coal, which would have reduced the cost of steel production by $100 a pound and cut pollution by fifty percent had it been adopted. He founded a not-for-profit—Energy Research Group of Western New York—to do that project and many others, including a detailed technical proposal to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) for a waterfront wind power system with vertical axis windmills on the Buffalo harbor breakwall in 1976. Of that time, Stieglitz recalls, “I wasn’t very enthusiastic about competing with people who didn’t understand what an unbelievable place Buffalo is. It’s just amazing. So we focused on the environment and we helped people put together the first global conference on the future.”
Unlike many who sigh and turn the page over such seemingly insoluble issues as global pollution, overpopulation, energy crises, and education reform, Stieglitz thrives on finding a solution, articulating daring and carefully developed plans. Working with research teams at UB, Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Texas, and other schools in the late seventies, he led the creation of Project Capricorn, a blueprint for a self-sufficient, sustainable city designed as “energy efficient, regenerative, nonpolluting, nonthreatening, and fully supportive of human demands.” The project became a centerpiece of the First Global Conference on the Future held in Toronto in 1980.
Around the same time, Stieglitz designed the WKBW headquarters in downtown Buffalo. It was the nation’s first television station building that captured, used, and stored its own heat, eliminating the need for a furnace. Additional broadcast facilities such as WNED, the Uniland University Corporate Center, and several other corporate and civic projects in WNY and elsewhere brought awards and recognition to his firm, but it was the crisis in education that increasingly engaged Stieglitz’s intellect and imagination.
“The environment, to me, could never be rescued without making a fundamental change in education,” explains Stieglitz. He spent five years writing the proposal for the more than $1 billion Buffalo Joint Schools Construction Project, and then worked to address the problems of alienated students and disruption in classrooms by establishing a public residential charter school to accommodate the enormous number of kids in family and social situations so stressful or dangerous that they are unable to concentrate or perform. Although the residential school still hasn’t been created, Stieglitz is proud of the reconstruction project but astonished by its lack of recognition.
“What’s amazing to me is there’s no coverage of the schools project,” he says. “There’s no other city in the world with a project like this. We should have been on the cover of the New York Times. There are some very, very important things that have taken place in Buffalo. We’ve showed other places how to do it.”
Favorite building in WNY: “I’m incredibly impressed with the Frank Lloyd Wright/Darwin Martin restoration. It’s absolutely superb.”
Dream project: “Rebuilding all the Buffalo schools. But the dream school in Buffalo has not been built yet. That’s one of our dream projects. We may do it in Niagara Falls. It would not just be for kids. It would be for families—a new institution, a new box.”
The Fountainhead: “When I was in college, I thought it was great. It’s an interesting book. But it has nothing to do with what we do. So in that sense, it gives you the wrong impression.”
Most admired architect: “Alvar Aalto. He was an inspiration to me when I was in Finland. I was going to work at his firm but he got very sick when I got there, so I never had a chance to work with him.”