Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Preservation Plus, Part 1: Opening Speaker Eric Corey Freed

Preservation Buffalo Niagara could not have chosen a better speaker to kick off their Preservation Plus conference last night at the Allendale Theatre on Allen Street.

Eric Corey Freed, an architect from California who specializes in a brand of design called "Organic Architecture," comes from a pedigree heavily influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and other similar-minded architects. He is part of a growing trend in architecture to incorporate biological inspiration into building design and urban planning.

Eric Corey Freed
Courtesy of organicARCHITECT.com
For the most part, his presentation contained a lot of information that was very familiar to conference attendees; our dependence on oil is not only unhealthy for us, but for the environment, citing a lot of facts that anyone with a TV has been inundated with over the last decade. Similarly, anyone with a cursory knowledge of American development in the last 60 years knew well in advance where his points about cars, interstates, and sprawl were going.

What was remarkable about the presentation was that he managed to put all of that into a little over an hour, without ever feeling like this was the same-old story about how we've screwed up the planet... despite that being the lecture's entire theme.

Masterfully timed jokes are what softened the blow, framing the discussion not in the guilt-inducing fear-mongering that most people associate with these topics, but in an engaging and lighthearted way.

Coupled with the humor was the pacing of the presentation, which felt more like a Folk-Story about bad decision making than academic presentation, though his citations were more than professional.

Mr. Freed outlined how the development of the car prompted the expansion of roads, how the development of industry precipitated our dependence on fossil fuels, and how city planning geared toward cars rather than people was not only hastened by the automobile industry's takeover of public transportation in the 40s, but how in the process, it fractured communities and destroyed most American urban life.

Amazingly, his humor managed to turn this terrifyingly dark story into something approachable. "We're Dodo-Sapiens," Mr. Freed joked, making not only a humorous statement, but a profound comparison to the fallacy in assuming that just because something has evolved from past developments means that it is better.

Dodo-Sapiens, "won't be the first species to wipe ourselves out, but we will be the first to do it knowingly." He paused after making that statement, letting it sink in, before saying, "As you can probably guess, I don't get invited to many dinner parties."

It was the last part of his presentation that resonated most with me, however, and hopefully with an audience of Buffalonians. It was filled with hope that once we realize that where we are today wasn't inevitable, that the world today is the product of calculated decisions by companies who did not have American's interests at heart, we can begin making things better.

Some of Mr. Freed's ideas are already being implemented, many of them in Detroit. His choice of a city that mirrors Buffalo's past was likely calculated, and while the audience was probably relieved to see that their city never reached the depths that Detroit has, the similar patterns could not be ignored. Abandoned buildings, vacant lots, a loss of sense of community.

It is in these cities that have already hit bottom that rebuilding can occur, where planning focused on the people that make cities lively and energetic. His ideas about urban farming, about locally owned stores, and small, fully green-integrated development, can be seen all over Buffalo.

At the end of the presentation he brought back the idea of the Dodo-Sapien. For us to shed this moniker, we will have to focus on preservation efforts, which have a far less negative impact on the environment, and coupled with the incorporation of sustainable energy technology could make old buildings just as good, if not better, than modern projects.

Additionally, any modern buildings have to take in ideas of green space, and need to fully embrace modern green technology, higher quality building materials, and the concept of cities as a public space. Innovative designs like those of Patrick Leblanc, which incorporate wildlife into his architecture, are the future, according to Mr. Freed.

Mr. Freed, despite filling his presentation with as many depressing facts about how badly we have abused the environment, our cities, and ourselves, managed to keep a lighthearted mood throughout.

Most importantly, his hopeful message and ideas helped set the perfect tone to kick off an event geared to show just how much Buffalo is doing right, and how much more we can and will do as a city.

If you missed the opening ceremony, but want to see one of Mr. Freed's presentations on "Dodo-Sapiens," here is a link to a past presentation in Wichita, Kansas.  

(Part Two of our PresPlus reaction can be found here)

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