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Winter Gardens, New York State, by César Pelli and Gruen Associates

Pelli march 1981 (3) index

Once an oasis, now a mirage – in the middle of the American city of Niagra Falls the tropical hothouse was an unexpected delight, that then fell into decline as a result of the early ’80s recession and was finally demolished in 2009

Originally published in the AR in March 1981 and first published online in July 2019 to mark the death of César Pelli (d. 19.07.2019) 

You don’t have to go to a famous urban disaster area like Detroit to get the idea that America has lost the art of building cities. There are signs of the same blight in even the smallest towns; empty lots, dereliction, and a pattern of new building that completely ignores the old.

Perhaps it’s an overdose of restless pioneer spirit that makes Americans prefer to move on and start up somewhere new, leaving behind the hulks of once thriving communities. Or maybe it’s simply that developers find it cheaper and easier to build on neat empty plots in the suburbs, rather than patch up fading downtowns. But within the overall gloom it is paradoxical that American architects have done more than most to create new versions of traditional civic spaces. Charles Moore’s Piazza D’Italia in New Orleans for example is a determined and, behind the jokes, deadly serious effort to knit a new development into what is left of the fabric of an old city.

Cesar Pelli and Gruen Associates new Winter Gardens building at Niagara Falls is an attempt to do the same.

Pelli march 1981 (3) 2

Pelli march 1981 (3) 2

Niagara’s problems don’t fit the usual pattern of urban blight. Hard times came with the fading of the resort’s traditional tourist attractions. By the ’60s the tourists had stopped coming in sufficient numbers to keep all the hotels in business, and those that did were spending their money across the border in Canada where the view is better. Niagara was caught in a vicious downward spiral. In the early ’70s Niagara’s city authorities set up an urban renewal project to try and stop the rot with the help of State and Federal money. The biggest element of the rescue bid is a huge new auditorium and convention centre, designed by Johnson & Burgee at their most monumental. It forms part of a development plan drawn up by Gruen Associates which aims to bring people back into the rest of Niagara. Gruen’s plan took Niagara’s inner area, planned on the usual grid layout and used it as the basis for a new central axis. At one end is the convention centre, at the other is the Winter Garden.

The original idea had been for a simple shopping mall, but Gruen’s planners believed it would stand little chance of success by itself. What was needed was a more exotic public space which would attract people into the area, as well as forming a part of any other development that might come later. It was hoped that the new buildings would form a catalyst for private developers.

Pelli march 1981

Pelli march 1981

Niagara’s ferocious climate suggested the Winter Gardens theme, a semi-tropical environment full of luxuriant plants, to provide a place for a stroll, or a picnic lunch. As a planning exercise it is too early to tell if the project has succeeded. After the down-turn in America’s economy, not all the hoped for spin-off developments have materialised. But at least there is new heart in Niagara, and it has been achieved within the city’s traditional centre rather than starting from scratch.

Certainly the Winter Gardens look stunning. They have the sharp jagged front and back elevation, extruded into a crystalline tube that recalls Pelli’s Pacific Design Centre. But though the smooth glass skin of the Gardens has a lot in common with Pelli’s slick detailing in California, the interior is more like a Victorian conception; the steel work is even finished in a Forth Bridge shade of rusty red. A forest of lacy steel girders rises from carefully tended beds of greenery, spread around pools and fountains, criss-crossed with high-level walkways and bridges.

During the daytime the structure looks solid enough, at night the skin disappears, leaving steel barebones floodlit standing stark against the sky. Not exactly a rival to the Falls themselves, but certainly worth the trip.

Pelli march 1981 (4)

Pelli march 1981 (4)

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