Dance of the Snow Plows: Buffalo Architect Choreographs Months-Long Snowscaping Project

Giant snow polka dots to greet tourists and residents at Front Park

Release Date: November 30, 2010

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Sergio Lopez-Pineiro's "Olmsted's Blank Snow" project is a celebration of winter, and will transform snow in Buffalo's Front Park into something quirky and beautiful. (Photo: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro)

Sergio Lopez-Pineiro used a scale model of the park, toy snow plows and heavy salt to plan his snowscape. (Photo: Sergio Lopez-Pineiro)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Where other Buffalonians see only piles of white, Sergio López-Piñeiro sees opportunity. This winter, the University at Buffalo architect will complete a months-long landscaping project using a single material commonly associated with Buffalo: snow.

Specifically, López-Piñeiro will partner with the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy to plow the snow in the parking lot of Buffalo's Front Park into 15 giant mounds, festooning the wind-chilled pavement with a pattern of oversized polka dots.

López-Piñeiro hopes that by February, each white hillock will be about 42 feet wide and 7 feet high. The view from above will be whimsical: mammoth snow spots in formation, arranged along the border and interior of a half-ellipse. From the ground, the view will be picturesque, with glimpses of the city and waterfront filling the space between the man-made knolls.

López-Piñeiro, an assistant professor of architecture, calls this planned landscape "Olmsted's Blank Snow." (Front Park is part of the system of parks and parkways that the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed for Buffalo in concert with his partner Calvert Vaux.)

López-Piñeiro's creative vision is a celebration of winter: By transforming the snow that others consider a nuisance into something quirky and beautiful, his work could be an inspiration for other northern cities grappling with the inevitable.

As the architect on "Olmsted's Blank Snow," López-Piñeiro compares his job to that of a choreographer.

"This project explores how to plow the snow in ways that result in interesting landscapes," he said. "So, in a way, you could argue that my role as a designer has been to choreograph the movements of the snow plows in the parking lot through the winter."

For months, López-Piñeiro has been plotting his next steps using a scale model of the park, employing toy snow plows to push drifts of heavy salt into the desired design. (To see a video of the scale model and the way López-Piñeiro envisions the snowscape emerging, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FK9r87E11Xc.) He plans to document this dance of snow plows in real life by installing a time-lapse camera overlooking the area where the plowing will take place.

Just blocks from Buffalo's waterfront, Front Park is one of the first things visitors from Canada see when they cross the nearby Peace Bridge.

López-Piñeiro hopes that "Olmsted's Blank Snow" will burnish Buffalo's reputation as a place that knows what to do when the blizzards hit. The city receives an average of 93.7 inches of snow each year, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center.

The concept for "Olmsted's Blank Snow" came to López-Piñeiro about two years ago, when he began taking photographs of snow drifts in nondescript places like parking lots. An import from the warmer climes of Madrid, López-Piñeiro found inspiration in Buffalo's snowscapes, which struck him as plain but beautiful.

That Buffalo's white winters would catch López-Piñeiro's attention is, perhaps, no surprise: The idea of "blankness" has long been a theme of his work. When it comes to the Front Park project, López-Piñeiro says he has no defined plans for how people and animals will enjoy the landscape he is creating.

As he explains, "I'm interested in relinquishing some of the power that architects have traditionally held. I'm interested in allowing and enabling people to use spaces in ways that are not necessarily foreseen by a single mastermind, the mind of the architect."

The New York State Council on the Arts is supporting "Olmsted's Blank Snow" with a grant of about $10,000. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy is the financial sponsor for the grant and will be responsible for plowing Front Park according to López-Piñeiro's design.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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