One Seneca Tower/ HSBC Center/ Marine Midland Bank
1 HSBC Plaza, Buffalo NY


1969-1972 - Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill
Also by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill:
Knox Addition, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

History:

Photos:

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The architects Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) were commissioned to erect the tallest building in Buffalos Skyline.

Since the building was constructed specifically for Marine Midland Bank’s headquarters and was built during the urban renewal program in Buffalo, this meant that the 40-story building did not have to be integrated into the surrounding context of the neighborhood.

Construction Started: March 1969 (the first day of spring)
Construction Completed: 1972
Marine Midland Center: 1972-1999
One HSBC Center: 1999-2013
One Seneca Tower: 2013- ?

The sand-colored, mid-century Brutalist monolith was described as a vertical village with small shops, and a restaurant, which brought pedestrians into an open plaza. The building is a mixed steel and concrete curtain wall with non-operable windows. Alongside of the tower is an L-shaped 4 story building that allows for an enclosed plaza surrounding the tower to its northern section, but it also instills the idea of a retail center that wraps around a building of residential, office and commercial mix-use.

Various types of steel beams were used in its buildings construction. The largest is 26 feet 10 inches long, weighing 42 tons; equivalent of two stories tall. As the vertical columns rose, floor beams and girders were welded into place, floor decks installed, and concrete flooring was poured. Simultaneously, the skin was being assembled, consisting of 4,000 slabs of precast concrete which were manufactured in Toronto.

Today, the buildings profile defines the downtown Buffalo skyline. Its location and height allow for amazing views of Lake Erie, the Buffalo River, and the entire region. The modern Brutalist building was built for the purpose of a bank, and did not take much consideration to the surrounding context of the site as it has spectacular views of the entire downtown area of Buffalo.

The building has a conflicted relationship with Main Street, which is articulated through a barren tunnel at the base of the building. The building’s entrances are all set back from the surrounding streets, with little protection for poor weather conditions.

While not the most used plaza, it does hold Ronald Bladen’s monumental work from 1973 title ‘Vroom, Shhh.” The plaza is barren and open to winter winds comparable to the force of a hurricane which gather around tall structures. Its initial design was during the urban renewal program in Buffalo.

The growth along the Buffalo River was predicted for nearly half a century, as part of this development boom which was expected to follow the construction of Marine Midland Center.

Besides being the tallest privately owned building in New York outside of New York City, this Modern gem captures the muscular architectural style of the post- World War II era. Its design which was distinctly modern in 1972, today feels fortress like and almost uninviting, unintentionally disrupting the flow of the urban fabric and seemingly creating an iconic barrier around which more welcoming development patterns are growing.

Since it follows the idea of form-follows-function, the building was built specifically for the bank, but thankfully this consisted of 38 stories of open space for office use, which is exactly what HSBC and others used the building for, before leaving at the end of 2013. There is hope for this building as other similar SOM buildings have been revived, surviving economic challenges in present time.

The original Marine Midland Center ranked as the largest development project in the city of Buffalo’s history at the time of construction in 1969. The typical size of each floor is 18,000 square feet and has flexibility in layout with no internal columns disrupting the flow.

This building is actually similar to another SOM building which recently had a complete top to bottom renovation; the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland Oregon. The Portland building has been renovated into an environmentally friendly, sustainable piece of architecture with the help of $100 million in government funded money.

- Excerpts: Dillon Gavis, DOCOMOMO US: One Seneca Tower (Former HSBC Center) (online May 2016)

"Vroomb-Shh," the three-story sculpture by Ronald Bladen, is the visual focus of the plaza on the east side of Main Street. That blast of black, domineering geometry is followed by more geometry, the plaza, and then finally the monumental climb of the tower itself. Even the trees, nature's most eloquent answer to humankind's tendency to put everything in, on or alongside boxes, are trapped in geometric "seats." The sculpture's title hints at rocketry, and indeed so outsized is the scene that it might well serve as the stage for an interplanetary saga.

The place is so outrageously out of human scale that it inspires fantasies of giantism. What size would people have to be to sit comfortably here? What vengeful giant of the imagination could possibly cut this structure down to mortal dimensions? After a particularly rough time of struggling through the wind tunnel that is formed by the building's arrogant leap across Main Street, I often imagine King Kong, his giant feet using the deeply inset windows as toeholds, climbing the face of thetower to poke massive fingers in at the diners on the 38th floor.

For all that, this building must have looked like an excellent design 20 years ago when Skidmore, Owens & Merrill first presented it in model form. The firm became famous for its early examples of the International Style, as glass-box modernism is often called. By the time Marine Midland Center was designed, the firm had started to soften the severity and anonymity of its style in favor of more individual designs. The combination of a warm, brown surface and schematic simplicity of form must have looked wonderful on a small scale set under a bright spotlight.

At 38 stories on the periphery of a low-skyline city, however, it looks entirely out of joint with its relatively modest environment. The building makes the Buffalo skyline seem about to sink into the lake under its dominating visual weight. Like a chunky kid who threatens to sit down hard on the seesaw and pop the lighter kids into the air, the structure projects a sense of intimidation.

By straddling Main Street, this bully of a building stops the visual movement of the city toward the lake. It blots out the view and abruptly terminates all sightlines down Main Street. Its engagement with the street life of the city is so minimal, it might as well be a feudal castle.
- The Buffalo News,  September 25, 1988


Photos and their arrangement 2007 Chuck LaChiusa
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