Designing a Better Buffalo
Gwen Howard: Architect
Alumna Gwen Howard has found vast success in the architecture world after studying the topic at UB. Courtesy of Douglas Levere
Monkeys jump from tree to tree, anacondas slither across the ground, and visitors take a deep breath to prepare for their walk through the 25-foot-tall cascading waterfall, only to enter the dark caves that are home to the vampire bats.
Gwen Howard, UB alumna, stands within the Rainforest Falls exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo with other visitors, but her trip is distinctly different from theirs. She does not just travel through the indoor exhibit to see the animals – Howard goes to see the building that she designed. Howard graduated from UB's School of Architecture and Planning in March 1995. As a graduate student, a city official, and currently as a senior project manager at Foit-Albert Associates, she has been improving the city of Buffalo one building at a time.
One of her most well known projects is Rainforest Falls.
Instead of thinking about how just humans were going to enjoy the building, Howard had to get into the mindset of an animal.
"The goal is to have this really open animal enclosure," Howard said. "How do you make it monkey proof, or lizard proof, or bird proof? Otters can get out of anything so there's no cage, but you have to design it so they [still] can't get out."
Howard's success has given some of the current UB architects something to look forward to after they get out of the studio. Aaron Salva, a junior architecture major, has been to Rainforest Falls and seen firsthand what a graduate from UB is capable of.
"It lets you know that people from UB have had success and your work can actually be built," Salva said. "So a lot of people are always saying other schools have bigger names but it just shows you if you work hard anyone can succeed."
Salva went to Rainforest Falls when he was a kid, walked under the waterfall and through the fully enclosed environment, and felt like he was one with nature.
"[My favorite part of the Rainforest Falls is] seeing the kids come in, and just looking at them smiling and the awe at their faces and not realizing where the public area ends and the exhibit begins," Howard said. "The planet isn't ours. We're just borrowing it, and we need to take care of it."
Since Howard was 8 years old, she knew she wanted to be an architect.
During a trip to Plymouth, Mass., Howard and her family went to the Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum. The entire village and its community captivated her – especially the historic architecture.
"That's when I knew what I wanted to do: fix old buildings," Howard said. Howard spent most of her toddler days living all over the country – from the rural south to Washington, D.C. – until her family finally settled in Lockport, NY. After finishing her undergraduate work in Georgia at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Howard decided to come back to Buffalo and attend UB's graduate school.
Her successful career started with her favorite class, taught by Robert Shibley, the current Dean of Architecture and Planning. The class was Urban Design and Studio, and students worked on real-life problems.
"[The class] was a real community urban design problem and we had to solve it," Howard said.
From working in the lower west side of Buffalo to a project housing implementation plan for downtown, Howard and her classmates were able to work in a professional setting, rather than stuck in a studio room.
It was in those studio rooms that Howard made some of her closest friends at UB, many of whom she has remained close with to this day.
Howard paid for schoolthrough random jobs. At one point she was a Dean's Assistant, but her favorite job was being a Teacher's Assistant for a photography course. Eventually the course's dark room became her favorite place to hang out when she wasn't in the architecture studio.
"I think [UB's] architecture education made me a critical thinker, a thorough thinker, but [gave me a] kind of a holistic global approach to things," Howard said.
If Howard could go back to her college days, she would have tried to have "a little more fun."
"There were sports?" Howard said. "We never left those [studio] buildings. The athletics, various events, I would have tried to integrate myself in that more – into the broader university experience."
Even after graduation and travelling to many different places, Howard chose to stay in Buffalo. She wanted to help make the Queen City better.
"I love Buffalo. I love the people, I love the look of the community, the architecture, the neighborhoods, the culture, the museums," Howard said.
Buffalo is a city already known for its architecture, and Howard has only amplified its popularity. She has advice for the current UB architecture students as well: remember that there is a world outside of UB – a competitive world that they need to integrate themselves into.
"It really is as much who you know and what you know," Howard said. "It's those connections as much as your academic performances that will help you move past your college life into your career."
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