UB Architect And Students Win Coveted Design Prize

Release Date: October 3, 1997

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A design team from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning has beat out more than 300 competitors to win the coveted Grand Prize in the Second San Francisco Prize Competition, “Toward a More Perfect Union,” an attempt to “re-invent” the city’s 25-acre Union Square.

The San Francisco Prize is one of the most distinguished and coveted in the field of architecture.

The UB team consisted of Rose Mendez, lecturer in the UB Department of Architecture and principle in F. M Design of Buffalo, and Michael Tunkey, one of Mendez’ undergraduate planning students and an intern at Cannon Design. Additional support was provided by several other students, including Elaine Chow, a UB undergraduate and Cannon intern; Gregory Fischer, a junior designer at Cannon, and UB graduate students including Joseph Wang.

The team took home a $4,000 cash award and the strong possibility that its plan will be adopted by the City of San Francisco.

Union Square is a shabby confusion of ramps, stairs, planters, bushes and paved areas atop an underground parking garage. The Buffalo team proposed that the square, which is now a walled space above sidewalk level, be reduced to a single plane that would “unwrap itself” over the area like a piece of origami.

The plan does away with the square’s surrounding walls and lowers the park’s outer edges to sidewalk elevation on each of its four sides. It opens the square up, making it part of the streets around it and letting light into the parking garage.

The competition jury applauded the winning design as an “elegant, unfolding urban napkin (that) also manages to shelter an indoor-outdoor market and other uses.” The latter include a majestic bandstand and skating rink tucked into the square area that serve as a counterpoint to the nearby Dewey Memorial.

Mendez said that the plan was more than a theoretical exercise.

“We are definitely going after the contract,” she added. She and Tunkey have prepared an architectural model of the proposed redesign and presented at San Francisco city planners last week. Their response was very encouraging, she added.

Like other proposals in the competition, the Buffalo design is controversial and visually extreme. But members of the blue-ribbon jury called it a “brilliant idea” and it has excited much public discussion among San Franciscans.

The Buffalo design was illustrated and discussed in the September issue of Architecture magazine.

Noting that the level of competition was extraordinary, Jean LaMarche, UB associate professor of architecture, called the winning design “exceptional.”

“The San Francisco Prize Competition offers one of the most coveted awards in architecture,” he said. “This is a very significant competition and the outcome really speaks to the quality and strength of our junior faculty in the Department of Architecture. It also indicates the strength of the program itself, since our undergraduates contributed so significantly to the winning entry. It’s a tremendous honor for all of us.”

The San Francisco Prize Competition is one of a number of contests that have developed as cities have persuaded their civic leaders to sponsor national and international competitions to come up with plans for the design and redevelopment of urban space. Such contests, explained LaMarche, produce high-quality design work and the winners get national and international attention.

Members of the jury said the highly abstract and unusual Buffalo proposal, “would give the designers a chance to work with neighborhood groups, the city and citizens of San Francisco to find the appropriate materials and details to turn this brilliant idea into a beautiful square.”

The runners-up in the competition were Jones Partners, a San Francisco architectural firm; Paul Martinez and Brian Kaufman of San Francisco, architectural designers; April Philips and Michael Fotheringham, Sausalito landscape architects, and San Francisco designer Robert Edmonds.

Mendez is a 1996 graduate of the Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Her research includes reassessment of context in architecture.

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