Release Date: November 14, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Even now, 14 years later, Joey Swerdlin fondly recalls the brief time he spent with Sydney Gross as classmates together in the bachelor’s degree program in the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning.
“Sydney was such a happy person. Even in the dark depths of exhausting studio deadlines, Sydney always kept a smile and positive spirit,” Swerdlin says. “Her laugh and smile were infectious and she was always bringing people from different friend groups together.”
Gross was a promising student who completed the first year of the undergraduate architecture program at UB when she died following a car accident in July 2009.
In the years since, Gross’ family and friends established an endowed fund in her memory to support programs that encourage collaboration and community among architecture students, such as the biannual Sydney Gross Memorial Lecture, Alumni Symposium, and the Student Lounge.
Now, Gross’ family is providing support for a design-build project along the Erie Canal in Medina, New York, that will serve as a living memorial to Gross, capturing her vibrant artistic spirit while providing a space for public gathering and enjoyment. UB students are putting the finishing touches on it now in preparation for an official opening at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17.
The project has been in the works since 2022, and is being led by Christopher Romano and Joyce Hwang, faculty members in the School of Architecture and Planning who knew Gross well — she was a student in their classes. That connection has only deepened their desire for this to be a truly special project.
“We came to them with a vague and simple idea to create a playful space in Sydney’s name that would bring students and community together,” says Sydney’s sister, Stephanie. “The magnitude of the project is the result of the dedication and creativity of Joyce and Chris.”
Adds Sydney’s mom, Lori Duckstein: “They never fail to exceed any expectation we might have. During her year at UB, Sydney spoke often about Joyce and Chris, the curriculum and why she was so lucky to be learning from them. I believed her then, but watching them define every stage of this project and their attention to every detail made it clear to me that Sydney could not have had a finer freshman year.”
“This whole project has been about trying to capture who Sydney was as a person and the energy she had when she was here. Although it emerged out of a tragedy, it has turned into something much more positive and endearing,” says Romano, an assistant professor of architecture at UB who is teaching the fall semester studio that is building the project.
“We’ve had this partnership for almost 15 years now. For me, this has always been something I’ve worked on with Joyce. It’s the biggest project we could have done together in honor of Sydney,” Romano says.
Hwang, an associate professor of architecture at UB, who, with Romano, co-taught the studio in the spring semester that laid the groundwork for the project to be built this fall.
“Our goal in the spring was to design something that would offer a combination of spaces to sit and reflect, as well as areas to play and socialize. Creating a space of wonderment and joy to embody the spirit of Sydney was important to us,” says Madeleine Sophie Sutton, a student in the Master of Architecture program who was part of Hwang’s studio.
The spring studio conducted several Zoom calls with Gross’ family and friends to learn more about who she was. “Fun” was the word Gross’ mother used most often. Above all else, Duckstein wanted the students to enjoy the studio experience in the same way her daughter did.
“We made a point to have fun in the studio, as a way to honor Sydney’s optimism, energy and excitement for the studio environment,” Sutton says. “We sought to embody her energy and love for all things playful through the design, and eventual construction of a living memorial. This project captures who Sydney was by the ways it invites people to play and have fun.”
The Sydney Gross Memorial will be situated on New York State Canal Corporation land along the Erie Canalway Trail in Medina, and will mark the much-anticipated beginning of a larger public art and recreation initiative by the New York Power Authority and New York State Canal Corporation’s Reimagine the Canals program.
The grand opening will be part of a coordinated announcement and is set for 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 17. In addition to Hwang and Romano, attendees will include Gross’ family and friends, UB students who have worked on the project, local high school students, local and state representatives as well as partners from different philanthropic organizations and art institutions involved in the waterfront development and public art planning in Medina.
Given that Gross was from the New York City area, Medina may not at first appear to be a fitting locale for a project so closely tied to her. But the parallels are perfect.
For starters, the village’s master plan seeks to reimagine Medina as a destination for arts and culture along the canal. “Tying this to an art project was important for us because Sydney was a very artistic, free, creative spirit,” says Hwang.
While it is being designed as “a living memorial” to Sydney, the space itself is intended to facilitate a sense of community and public activity. It will be a vibrant recreational space to be enjoyed not only by Medina residents, but anyone who bikes, walks or jogs along the canal while being easily accessible to UB.
“Ultimately, it’s the perfect representation of Sydney,” says Ryan Edwards, a second-year Master of Architecture student who has been a part of both studios. “It’s a project in a community that she has no relation to, but she’s going to be bringing people together in a fun way.”
Hwang challenged her students to rethink the concept of what a memorial is. “When you think of the word ‘memorial,’ it often conveys commemorating something that was lost,” she says. “But Sydney’s family and friends were adamant that this not be a somber place. It’s a place that will promote joy and community.”
The Sydney Gross Memorial consists of 23 precast concrete modules (the “Units”), weighing anywhere from several hundred to several thousand pounds. Students spent several weeks working on the initial molds and steel reinforcing in the School of Architecture and Planning’s SMART Factory and the Fabrication Workshop, under Romano’s direction with assistance from shop directors Steph Cramer, Wade Georgi and Julia Hunt. The molds were then cast in concrete at Southside Precast Products in Buffalo.
The Units — think of them as urban furniture — are arranged primarily in three clusters and stack together like masonry building blocks.
Edwards is excited about how the community will interact with the memorial. “If you want to just go and sit and eat lunch and watch the sunset, it’s perfect for that,” he says. “Or if you’re a 6-year-old, you can jump all over it and have a ball. People can experience it however they want to, but the overarching theme of it is ‘fun.’”
The project has benefited not only from the Gross family funding, but also through numerous in-kind donations, a joining of forces of people working to achieve a goal for the community, including Nicole Sarmiento, an adjunct faculty member and recent UB alumna who worked with Hwang and Romano over the summer to finalize the design drawings.
“It has been an amazing experience to be involved with a project that means so much to so many different groups of people,” says Sutton.
Swerdlin is astounded by the number of people who have been involved in bringing the project to life. A 2013 UB graduate, Swerdlin has had an active role in the project, from the very early stages of brainstorming, to serving as a juror for the spring studio, and now, as a professor teaching a seminar focused on telling the story of the project.
“One thing that has been sticking with me is recognizing that so many dozens of people are involved in the project’s creation and hundreds and thousands will eventually interact with it once it’s installed, says Swerdlin.
“Through each laugh, smile and interaction, Sydney’s memory is being celebrated, and she continues to make an impact on people’s lives in a positive way. She would be so incredibly happy to see how her professors and students have had so much fun bringing this project to life and knowing it will bring joy and peace to so many people.”
The Sydney Gross Memorial Fund provided funding for the project. Materials and labor were donated from corporate partners, and the New York Power Authority supplied summer funding. Project sponsors include: Southside Precast Products, Alp Steel, Thermal Foams, Buffalo Concrete Accessories, Rigidized Metals, Kistner Concrete, Holcim Concrete, Shelby Stone, and the Lions Club of Medina.