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Explore Buffalo Building Profile: M&T Plaza
Suzanne Ernst
Buffalo Rising, July 16, 2020

Since 1969, One M&T Plaza has hosted free summer lunchtime concerts in front of its downtown headquarters on Main Street.  An array of entertainment from music to dance has kept the downtown workforce entertained every summer weekday at 12 noon.  While the concert series sadly cannot take place in person this summer, the building can still be admired.  Explore Buffalo staff member and docent Suzanne Ernst describes Minoru Yamasaki’s Buffalo commission.  The skyscraper is also a stop on Explore Buffalo’s Masters of American Architecture walking tour, now being offered several days a week throughout the summer.

One of the most recognizable skyscrapers in Buffalo is the tower at One M&T Plaza.  With its white marble exterior and narrow windows, the 1966 building is easy to identify among the handful of skyscrapers in the city.  What many may not know is that its architect is the creator of his own architectural style and the designer of some of the most famous buildings in the world.

Minoru Yamasaki is considered one of the leading innovators of the architectural style called New Formalism. New Formalism features the modern International Style combined with classical elements like columns, arches and colonnades with strong building materials like marble, granite or man-made concrete. The buildings are typically set on a podium and have smooth walls and surfaces. Usually set in a plaza with large sculptures or fountains, the style is meant to achieve an air of monumentalism.

Yamasaki was born in in Seattle, Washington in 1912.  He began his education in architecture at the University of Washington.  In the 1930s he moved to New York to earn his Masters degree at New York University.  During this time, he began work for the firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon who were the designers of the Empire State Building.

By 1945, he moved to Detroit to work for the firm of Smith, Hinchman and Grillis. During WWII, when the U.S. government mandated the internment of Japanese Americans, the firm kept Yamasaki on as their employee, helping him to avoid internment.  This also helped him to move his parents from Seattle to New York City to an apartment that he kept there to save them from being sent to an internment camp as well. By 1955, he founded the firm of Yamasaki & Associates in Troy, Michigan.

Yamasaki was influenced by the International Style movement of the time, which features buildings that are very sleek looking and without ornament, like the Central Branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library in Lafayette Square and the Knox wing of the Albright Knox Gallery. (The Knox wing’s architect, Gordon Bunshaft, is credited with popularizing the International Style in America.)  However, in this time, he traveled to places like Italy, India and Japan and found inspiration from the architecture there.  The combination of influence from the International Style and classical elements are what resulted in the Yamasaki’s development of what is known as New Formalism.

He was best known for designing the World Trade Center in New York City which stood from 1973 until September 11, 2001. As he was designing the plans for those towers, his plans for One M&T Plaza in Buffalo were becoming a reality.  In 1963 the president of M&T Bank chose Yamasaki to build the bank’s new headquarters in downtown Buffalo.  Previously, the bank had heavily favored the classical/temple style for its buildings.  A series of classical/temple style structures were built as headquarters over the years, starting with a Green & Wicks building in 1899.  A 1913 classical structure by Furness, Evans and Co. increased the building to four stories.  Many of the bank’s branches were modeled after this style.  In 1963, M&T liked that Yamasaki’s style was contemporary but that it still reflected the bank’s tradition of classical ornamentation.  Construction on the tower began in 1964 and the building officially opened in 1966.

With a quick look, one sees a modern skyscraper, but with a closer look, there are clearly classical elements and materials on the building.  The main entrance has columns interspersed with arches.  Yamasaki used green trim marble imported from Italy on the base of the building on the north and south sides.   White marble is used on the exterior except for the green marble on the base.   The white and green were intentionally used together as they are the brand colors of M&T Bank.

The sculpture in the plaza was designed by Harry Bertoia in coordination with Yamasaki. It is meant to serve as a contrast: a curved structure against the straight line of the building.

Like many other architects, Yamasaki was sure to pay homage to those who advanced the profession and designs of architecture before him.  Only a couple of blocks away stands the Guaranty Building by Adler and Sullivan.  Yamasaki used Adler and Sullivan’s innovative concept for modern skyscrapers with the first two floors of the building making up a common area (the base), uniform stories of floors reaching to the sky (the shaft) and an ornamental cornice at the top (the capital).  Yamasaki also continued the tradition set by Furness, Evans & Co. in mixing white and green marble to reflect M&T’s colors.

Photo Credits:
Laura Calandra
Chuck LaChiusa/BuffaloAH.com

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2020
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