Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Artist Kurt Treeby’s small tissue-box replicas of threatened and razed modern architecture mix cuteness with contemplation and mourning.
Trained as a painter, Buffalo-based artist Kurt Treeby has since turned his interest in fiber work and architecture into an opportunity to reflect on loss in the built environment, recreating buildings in plastic canvas and yarn—often as tissue boxes. In making these mini-replicas, Treeby aims to use recognizable buildings that have been altered or demolished, using tissues to add an extra layer of meaning through their association with mourning.
Treeby first learned about Frank Lloyd Wright’s vanished Larkin Administration Building while attending college in the ‘90s. (Buffalo’s decision in 1950 to raze the vacant but internationally-admired design now haunts seemingly every Western New York preservationist, historian, and urbanist blog commenter.) He has been fascinated by the building ever since he first saw images of it. But, he tells CityLab, “I stayed away from [the Larkin] at first because it was so iconic.”
Instead, he started off his series with Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum (threatened with multiple expansion proposals until the museum relocated), Richard Neutra’s Cyclorama (demolished in 2013), Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s American Folk Art Museum (demolished in 2014), and SITE’s postmodern Best stores—buildings that don’t yet see the level of respect so many Wright works do today.
In 2015, he made his work more personal, bringing his yarn, plastics, and tissues to regional projects that were brand new during his childhood, including Cesar Pelli’s Wintergarden. Built in 1977, toward the end of Niagara Falls’s flirtation with some of the country’s best modern architects, the glass-enclosed public building failed to attract enough commerce to the hapless downtown and was eventually demolished in 2009.
“Pelli was not an architect everyone was aware of,” says Treeby. “It was relatively new still, but if it was 100 years older people would have wanted to repair it and make better.” Treeby also recreated a section of Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments, the troubled affordable-housing complex that stands in the shadows of Buffalo City Hall vacant and partially demolished. Built around the same time as the Wintergarden, “the story of Shoreline is playing out on the sidelines,” says the artist. “People are mostly indifferent to it and there’s a stigma against it.”
As for the Larkin Building, Treeby eventually made two re-interpreted versions of the structure: one as a negative cavity on the current site, and another one illuminated with no yarn, giving it a ghostly spirit.
A substantial wave of reinvestment is now taking place around the surface lot where Wright’s building once stood, leading to louder cries for its actual reconstruction. But the artist thinks it’s best to let it stay dead. “It would be interesting to go to the site [of where its remains are buried] and see if something sculptural could come out of it. … But rebuilding it would be unrealistic and not what Wright would want,” says Treeby. “I think that the idea of preservation is still new in Buffalo. For a long time, people didn’t care, and the Larkin Building is a symbol of that past. So how do you honor that?”
Treeby has been taking a break from these pieces since exhibiting them last year. “It took over a year to make three large pieces and it burned me out,” says the artist. But with a show about Rudolph’s Shoreline now in the works at a local gallery, he says he might just finish recreating the rest of the housing complex as he originally intended.