Small Built Works Studio Helps Create 'Front Yard' for Buffalo

Front Lawn rendering.

The design concept for a new permanent installation at the Burchfield Penney Art Center called 'The Front Yard' originated with Brad Wales and the Department of Architecture's Small Built Works studio. Image courtesy of Isabella Brito and Brad Wales

Published September 20, 2013

“The Front Yard design will invigorate the Burchfield Penney’s facade. It makes a performance space of the front yard and allows for greater public engagement of the site. The Department of Architecture is happy to be part of this transformation of the space. ”
Omar Khan, Associate Professor and Chair
Department of Architecture

The School of Architecture and Planning played a critical role in the conception, design and development of Burchfield Penney Art Center's "Front Yard" installation, the world’s first permanent, environmentally-responsive, outdoor audio and video installation. Turning the sweeping curve of the Burchfield Penney’s exterior into a projection surface, "The Front Yard" will extend the cultural, social and architectural elements usually relegated to a museum interior.

The installation will open at the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State at sunset on Friday, October 18, 2013, transforming the Elmwood Avenue 38-foot façade of the Center into a 24/7/365 new media gallery with works by artist and project co-designer Brian Milbrand followed by film and video makers: Steina, Barbara Lattanzi, Meg Knowles & Chris Gallant newly re-mastered pieces by the late Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton.

The concept for The Front Yard is the brainchild of Clinical Assistant Professor Brad Wales and media artist Milbrand, who imagined transforming the exterior of the Burchfield Penney into a backdrop for audio and image, created and presented based on a variety of cues drawn from changes in the weather. Moreover, the project is a direct homage to the art and vision of Charles Burchfield (1893-1967), the American watercolorist whose art and archives are preserved in the Center’s collection, whose art, in a unique way, incorporates the phenomenon of nature.

Wales and Milbrand, along with undergraduate architecture students from the school's Small Built Works studio and communication students from Buffalo State, brought the design concept to fruition over the course of the 2012-13 academic year. Initial tower designs were created in a competitive charrette format by a team of Wales' students. Wales and his students, collaborating with a diverse team, then led the final design and production of the towers, which were constructed in the School of Architecture and Planning’s fabrication shop.

Students participating in the initial design investigations included Brian Belluscio, Andrew Durkee, Ryan Dussault, You-chiang Feng, David Heaton, Hanna Ihrke, Ian Liu, Alex Marchuk, Mike Mieszczanski, Maya Shermer, Ryan Sidor, Trenton Van Epps, and Isabella Brito. It was Brito's sleek shape & dot-pattern concept that was selected for construction. 

“The Front Yard design will invigorate the Burchfield Penney’s facade. It makes a performance space of the front yard and allows for greater public engagement of the site,” said Omar Khan, associate professor and chair, Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo. “The Department of Architecture is happy to be part of this transformation of the space. The projection towers designed under the supervision of Professor Brad Wales provide for this new capacity with an understated and elegant design. We look forward to the first projections that will bring new life to the street.”

“This creative collaboration was an incredible partnership between two SUNY institutions that brought a breadth of innovation and perspective to an engaging project that will greatly enrich Western New York’s artistic community. We are proud to have been involved in such a dynamic visual arts endeavor,” said Dennis K. Ponton, Ph.D., Buffalo State provost and officer-in-charge.

Key design components include three 24-foot steel- and glass-clad towers each housing a top of the line projector with state of the art audio. Paintings by Charles Burchfield are stippled into the façade of the stainless steel towers. Each tower encompasses a different season with work from Burchfield Penney's collection, including Moth and the Thunderclap (1961), Wind-blown Asters (1951) and Oncoming Spring (1954).

Initial tower designs were created in a competitive charrette format by a team of undergraduate and graduate students as part of Wales’ Small Built Works project. Brazilian exchange student Isabella Brito's sleek shape & dot-pattern concept was selected for construction. Read a profile of Isabella Brito.

A team of faculty, students and staff have been busy in our shop fabricating three 24-foot towers for installation on the grounds of the Burchfield Penney Art Center. View a gallery of the towers' assembly.

“When I proposed the theme of seasonal cycles for the triple screen video, it was to honor Burchfield’s life-long interest in the changing seasons, which is such a large part of life in Buffalo,” said Wales, who is active in the Buffalo community as a practicing architect and video artist. “Many possibilities were inherent in that concept, such as the beauty of projections passing through snow in the winter. The idea of the projected light on snow flakes, reminds me of how Burchfield painted sound waves passing through space.”

Customized sensors installed on the grounds of the Burchfield Penney will read environmental conditions, including temperature, rain, light levels, wind, movement and other factors, which determine audio and image displays. The electronic basis on these audio and image displays will be stored in a SQL database and cued from environmental factors.

In addition, three Panasonic WV-SW395 PTZ weatherproof dome cameras will be installed on the grounds of the Burchfield Penney chronicling images from around the Center. The pictures, also recorded based on weather and time of day, will be compiled for artists to use in new work. The camera images also may be presented in real-time based on the predetermined environmental factors. All audio and image output will be controlled by a software program designed by Milbrand using Max/MSP/Jitter.

“I’ve always been interested in Buffalo’s dramatic cycles of the seasons, and how we shift from season to season, a similar curiosity to that of Charles Burchfield,” said Milbrand, technical director for Buffalo State’s Communication department. “Bringing public video art to this region is also a passion that I wanted to create with the talented media artists with whom I collaborate. Avant garde audio, film and video productions flood out of Western New York, and all the practitioners are presenting very experimental and challenging work.”

"Obbvious in all of Burchfield’s work is how attuned to and motivated by nature he was. Cyclical patterns and weather highlights mark our time and experience of life,” added Scott Propeack, associate director/chief curator at the Burchfield Penney.

The Front Yard opening event is set for Friday, October 18, starting off a continuous audio and image installation by hundreds of artists. As a permanent gallery space of the Burchfield Penney, new content will be added on the second Friday of every month as part of M&T Second Friday at the Burchfield Penney. 

The new installation is being made possible by a generous lead gift from M&T Bank and an enthusiastic group of donors, including Louis P. Ciminelli and LP Ciminelli, Rigidized Metals, Buffalo Structural Steel and Klein Steel.

For further information on The Front Yard visit