Polis and the Police: Reflections on Planning and Protest

I spent the late 90s doing battle with the product of one of Buffalo and SUNY’s most notorious design decisions: The University at Buffalo expansion campus in Amherst, NY. The first time I set foot on campus, I found that what I had heard was true: It put the brutal in Brutalist. Architectural style aside—after all, as I would learn, Brutalism in and of itself was not a sin—the UB Amherst campus had other, more systemic problems baked into its design—problems which are again top of mind amid the current protests over racial injustice.

Aerial view of the UB Amherst campus

Commuting to the Amherst campus every day from my home in Buffalo, I soon came to think of it as airport-meets-academia. The campus is surrounded by parking lots, but there was still not enough capacity for commuting students, causing perpetual vulturing for a parking space and frustrating delays. To this day, I have recurring bad dreams about being late for class or, for that matter, not being able to find my classroom in an Escher-like warren of disjointed buildings. Public transportation? Buffalo’s absurd, single train line terminated at the UB south campus, broadcasting another important factor: UB Amherst was intentionally isolated amid the suburban sprawl. The message: Get in, learn, and get out. Don’t linger. Don’t even think about organizing any gatherings with fellow students. And for heaven’s sake, don’t expect anything about the experience to be comfortable or inspiring.

Founder's Plaza, ready for filming a remake of Logan's Run

And then there’s the persistent legend that the Amherst campus was intentionally designed to thwart large gatherings of students (read youthful protests) in the late 60s / early 70s. While there doesn’t seem to be any smoking gun in this case—no administrator or architect’s brief stating, to borrow from the Offspring, “you gotta keep ‘em separated”—the suburban isolation of the campus and lack of a cohesive plan is enough to underscore the element of truth in the legend. See Jack Ding’s excellent analysis of these issues in his paper “A Rat in a Maze.” Suffice it to say, my first-hand experience supports the assertion that the Amherst campus was successful at one thing: discouraging gatherings and organized protest. Its one quad-like space, Founder's Plaza, is a dismal, paved expanse more akin to a prison yard than a campus green in the ivy-league sense. So much for the promised “Berkeley of the East.”

Architect Robert Coles (1930-2020)
The late Robert Coles, a distinguished black architect from Buffalo, lobbied for an alternative to the Amherst site: a waterfront campus which may well have brought people, money, and energy to the beleaguered city. He formed the “Committee for an Urban University,” enlisting a group of progressive-minded Buffalo business leaders and professionals. Though they tried to enlist UB President Martin Meyerson (a former urban planner himself), they stood in opposition to the momentum of the times toward a suburban site—momentum fueled by Robert Moses’ relentless influence and Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s campaign to see the SUNY system modernized through International Style monuments to the technocratic state. Perhaps needless to say, Coles’ group lost the battle, becoming a footnote to Buffalo’s narrative of white flight and seemingly irreversible sprawl.

Fast forward to 2020: The nation watched as militarized police, overshadowed by memories of Vietnam-era protests, cleared Niagara Square—the hub of Joseph Ellicott’s once-elegant radial street plan for the city—of a few harmless Black Lives Matter protestors. One of them was an elderly, peaceful protestor, knocked to the ground and left bleeding from the head—all so the public space in front of the austere, Art Deco City Hall could be left as lifeless as ever—a parking lot for police cruisers. This horrific scene had everything to do with the warrior mentality of the Buffalo Police Department, the rampant militarization of police forces across the country, and the tensions between the progressive and the paranoid, fueled at the national level. But it also takes us back to the question of how downtown Buffalo was gutted of the potential for intellectual interaction and public dissent in favor of creating a synthetic polis well outside the city.

Buffalo Police, cracking down in Niagara Square
Again, the message was clear: Protest was not welcome in downtown Buffalo any more than it was encouraged at the UB Amherst campus. But would Coles’ vision of a waterfront campus have been any more conducive to protest? Would it have afforded the vital public space to speak out against the forces which once discouraged Coles from pursuing his profession because there were few black architects? For that matter, is a well-planned campus, wherever it may be, with a central, park-like gathering space more desirable as a safe space to stage protests? Ask the survivors of the Kent State massacre.


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