The past can be intimidating for architects working in older cities with limited examples of contemporary design, but Sokol has managed to push a new look forward with his Birdhouse. Completed in 2011, the residence replaces a vacant lot on Bird Avenue in Buffalo, New York—a rare opportunity for new construction in a healthy neighborhood defined by its collection of century-old infrastructure.
Connected to a parkway system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the Elmwood Village neighborhood Birdhouse sits in contains a sprawling psychiatric complex designed by H.H. Richardson, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, and an inescapable assortment of Victorian-era dwellings.
With context in mind, Sokol had the house reflect the scale of the previous house on site which burned down a decade ago. As a gesture to the neighbor who had grown accustomed to the extra daylight in his living and dining rooms, Sokol angled one wall back by six degrees to maximize sunlight exposure next door.
Embracing its proximity to Richardson’s hulking, copper towered complex built in 1870, Birdhouse’s ridge line was shifted off-center to best capture a view of the former psychiatric center (currently undergoing renovation).
In a city typically uncomfortable with ostentation, Sokol implemented his design vision with affordable materials including polished concrete, birch plywood, plaster, and glass tile. Shingles, seen locally on many 19th century homes are also used at Birdhouse, its black facade composed of locally recycled rubber converted into shingles.
As for its reception, Birdhouse has received mixed feedback so far. "A lot of people have told me they like it but the local blogs have been about 50/50," says the architect. "I’m sure there are people within the block that probably don’t like it but that’s healthy."
For all the historical and romantic associations that come with Buffalo’s old housing stock, one should remember that the now familiar forms of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes around the city, including one down the street from Sokol’s project, originally appeared as dramatic contrasts to their pre-modern surroundings. Birdhouse may ruffle a few traditionalists, but this surprising new addition to the city’s lengthy catalog of buildings should be worth admiring for years to come.
Mark Byrnes is a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities and a graduate student in publications design at the University of Baltimore.