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Behind the Design: The “Front Yard” at the Burchfield Penney Art Center

The Front Yard turned on with a community celebration. The three towers each stand at 26 feet and project a continuous stream of audio and video onto the art center’s sweeping façade. Image courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Photo by Bill Wippert

Published April 28, 2014

Since the switch was flipped in fall 2013, three steel-sheathed towers designed and built by the Buffalo School have projected a nonstop stream of audio and video onto the sweeping, 90-foot façade of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. The “Front Yard” installation has transformed the gallery’s Elmwood Avenue lawn into a permanent digital media amphitheater and an exciting new cultural space for Buffalo.

But take a closer look at the sides of the towers, and you’ll note that linear LED lights shine through stainless steel panels perforated with over 30,000 holes, patterned after details of three of Charles Burchfield’s classic paintings. Peer inside the holes and you’ll see a feat of engineering – 42 steel panels joined together with machine-like precision to form three 26-foot-tall, structurally engineered towers sized just large enough to allow a technician access to the 7,000-lumen projectors housed at the top.

The “Front Yard” is the product of the creative efforts and support of dozens of partners 

in the community, as well as an act of “curatorial braveness” on the part of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, says Brad Wales, a practicing architect and clinical assistant professor, who has led the project since its inception. 

It all began in 2008, when Wales, in partnership with media artist and Buffalo State faculty member Brian Milbrand, responded to a public art competition sponsored by the Burchfield Penney. The pair’s proposal for a three-channel video amphitheater for the rear of the gallery won out of a field of 46 entries. Called “Cycles,” the installation responded to cues drawn from changes in the weather in reference to Burchfield’s unique interest in the cycles of the seasons.

The design concept for the Front Yard emerged from “Cycles” (2008), a proposal for a three-channel video amphitheater for the rear of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Rendering courtesy of Brad Wales, R.A., and  Brian Milbrand

Built Works Program, that the project moved to the next stage. Students developed a series of options for a set of towers designed to be as slim and as visually transparent as possible, architecturally referential to the gallery and watertight to protect the equipment inside. 

By November 2012, with seven concepts in hand, Wales and his students presented “Cycles II” to Burchfield Penney’s director, Anthony Bannon. Within a month the team had the go-ahead from the art center’s Board of Trustees.

“This was a gutsy curatorial move,” said Wales, noting that Bannon had just been appointed director of the Burchfield Penney. “The Burchfield made a bold, visionary curatorial decision that will enrich the city for many years.”

The finished towers were co-designed by Wales and Isabella Brito, a Brazilian exchange student who developed the Burchfield-based iconographic concept. Over the summer of 2013, Brito was hired as an intern to create scores of technical drawings. Mike Pratt from Watts Architects & Engineers donated structural engineering services. Meanwhile, Milbrand and Burchfield Penney curators Don Metz and Scott Propeack developed the audio and visual program featuring an international lineup of new media artists and sounds recorded from the very landscapes that inspired Burchfield more than 50 years ago. 

Rigidized Metals Corp. would fabricate the steel panels, CNC-laser cutting the holes in the stainless steel to create perforated renditions of Burchfield’s paintings. The towers were fabricated in the school’s Materials and Methods Shop by staff, students and alumnus Wade Georgi (MArch ’11, Architecture BS ‘09). The fabrication process consumed over 40 miles of welding wire. 

Community sponsorship was also essential to the project’s success. The $500,000 installation was supported by M&T Bank, Louis P. Ciminelli and LP Ciminelli, with major in kind donations from Rigidized Metals, Buffalo Structural Steel and Klein Steel. In kind and pedagogical support from the Buffalo School was provided under the leadership of Dean Robert Shibley and Omar Khan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Architecture. 

Looking ahead, Wales says he is most excited by what the Burchfield Penney will do next. For instance, the team intentionally left blank conduits in the towers to allow for live performances in the new outdoor space. “Hopefully, we’ve created an infrastructure that will facilitate a kind of open-ended usage by their curators,” he said. 

Small Built Works Students:

Brian Belluscio
Isabella Brito
Andrew Durkee
Ryan Dussault
You-chiang Feng
David Heaton
Hanna Ihrke
Ian Liu
Alex Marchuk
Mike Mieszczanski
Charlie Schmidt
Maya Shermer
Ryan Sidor
Trenton Van Epps