Can Architecture Save Syracuse?

Can Architecture Save Syracuse?

On March 7, the dean of the Syracuse University School of Architecture, Mark Robbins, was named senior advisor for architecture and urban initiatives for the university. The announcement formalized a role Robbins has been playing since he arrived at SU in 2004.

The struggling upstate city has already benefited from the attention of Robbins and the university, and in the next couple of years Robbins plans to roll out an impressive roster of new buildings and initiatives both for campus and town, including projects by such marquee name designers and emerging talents as Toshiko Mori, Koning Eizenberg, and Field Operations.

“It’s part of an evolving commitment we are making to the city,” said university chancellor Nancy Cantor. Robbins and Cantor share a belief that engagement with the city is mutually beneficial. “We want to be a sustainable anchor in this community,” she said, calling the private university and the city “joined at the hip.” Practical concerns such as attracting faculty and students are driving the projects, she added, in addition to loftier goals: “We are committed to engaged scholarship. Our intellectual capital can make a difference.”

Like much of upstate New York, Syracuse faces daunting economic and urban challenges. According to a 2005 report by the Syracuse Arts Initiative, the city has lost nearly one third of its population since its 1950 peak of 220,000. The housing vacancy rate is almost double the state average. In the same period, suburbs around the city swelled. Poverty is concentrated in the central city, with median incomes in the city approximately half that of the county. “They’ve lost population, lost tax base, but unlike Detroit or Buffalo, it’s small enough that we can have an impact,” Robbins said. “I believe the city and the region can be a very active field for us.” 

In spite of the challenges, Robbins sees opportunities in the city, especially for architects. “You have to look at your available resources,” he said. “We have tremendous intellectual capital and architectural patrimony.” Inexpensive real estate helps. While looking for a downtown building to renovate for his own home, Robbins also looked at a couple of large properties that could serve as a swing space for the architecture school. After locating a former furniture warehouse downtown as the likely site, Robbins called on Richard Gluckman, a Syracuse alumni, to renovate the 135,000-square-foot structure, now called The Warehouse. The building brought five hundred students and faculty downtown, and, with its glowing Panelite-covered openings in its massive concrete walls, looks like a hive of activity at all hours of the day and night.

“It’s made a very real difference,” said Tim Carroll, legislative aide to Syracuse Mayor Matthew Driscoll. “Both the look and the perception of the university’s commitment to the city have vastly improved.” Acknowledging some town/gown differences in the past, Carroll praises both Robbins and Cantor: “There was a perception in the community that the university didn’t always give back to the community, but the Chancellor has turned that on its head in short order.” After the Warehouse opened, a private developer acquired two adjacent lots, testifying to the project’s catalytic effect.

In addition to the $9 million Warehouse, the university has been active in bringing high-level design thinking to a variety of civic concerns. Field Operations contributed a master plan for a corridor connecting many of the city’s arts, cultural, and educational institutions, to be called the “Syracuse L.” Harvard’s chair of the architecture department Toshiko Mori, working with local firm Ashley McGraw Architects, has designed a new 55,000-square-foot Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems, also for downtown. Santa Monica–based Koning Eizenberg Architecture is working on a new public broadcasting station due to break ground this year, with bold super-graphics incorporated into the facade and a folded green roof.

Sycracuse faculty are also involved. Scott Ruff and Timothy Stenson are converting a house into an info center and an artist-in-residence apartment in a depressed neighborhood adjacent to downtown that is also becoming an area of targeted investment for the city and the university. Arthur MacDonald Architect is renovating the 1910 Syracuse Trust building for mixed uses. On campus, the building continues with a new athletic center by SOM, a possible law school renovation and expansion by Gluckman Mayner, and a residence hall expansion by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects due for completion in the fall of 2009.

“Every place does it differently—Cincinnati, the University of Pennsylvania—we have our own particular strategy,” Cantor said. If one can detect a certain neo-modernist stylistic bias among the designs, one can also sense a greater degree of urban engagement than, say, at Cincinnati: There is not a Gehry crumple or a Calatrava bobble on the boards. Adaptive reuse is as often the strategy as new construction. “It’s more about people and programs, culture and community, than it is about buildings,” Cantor said.

Robbins acknowledges that architecture alone cannot rescue a city. “I don’t mean to be overly instrumentalizing about design,” he said. “But architects have a role to play. I believe in pushing the conversation forward.” From the perspective of city government, SU and other institutions such as hospitals are key to the city’s future. “There is a sense that the important players here—the city, the institutions, the developers—are pulling in the same direction,” said Carroll. “We’re cautiously optimistic.”