Ugly People and Their Fences
by Michael I. Niman
Ugly People and Their Fences
The fact that a rich Canadian investment fund manager who bought a Buffalo mansion from a strip club mogul commissioned Oleg Shyshkin, a Ukrainian-Canadian artist, to build him signature gothic gates for his empty Nottingham Terrace property, has taken on a curious prominence in local media. It’s not that this trivial story is actually newsworthy, even on a slow news day. Even when you tie in zoning code violations, they’re more the norm than the exception in Buffalo—not really worthy of a months-long persistent media presence. This story exists because, when the rich whine, we all have to listen. And the neighbors around Delaware Park certainly are whining.
OK. For the record, I think the fence is grotesque in its meaning, as is the mansion it will surround, as are most of the houses abutting Delaware Park. They were built to idolize and celebrate the sociopathic greed of their owners. Rich people building monuments to themselves, meant to project their self-importance and self-perceived social placement. Like their mansions, their over-the-top architectural accoutrements help secure social stature among peer group competitors.
While grotesque in its meaning, I also find it beautiful in its execution. It’s iron middle finger to the world outdoes itself, reviving the high art of previous robber baron eras. This is the kind of art that inspires revolution, or cows serfs into compliance. It’s a horrific celebration of architecture as pageantry. Like the corporate jingle that just gets stuck in your head, it does it well. You have to appreciate the artistry behind this monstrosity. It compliments the lines and curves of the mansion it imprisons, projecting the building’s message to the curbside. But it does it in a way that lampoons itself with its gothic excess. You almost expect the house to be populated with circus clowns or Reality TV stars.
As such, it’s part of our city’s public art heritage—as functionally ridiculous as a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but equally interesting, and destined to be a significant part of our architectural mix. That is, if it doesn’t meet the same fate as sculptor Billie Lawless’s controversial Green Lightning sculpture, whose removal Buffalo Mayor Jimmie Griffin ordered in 1984.
It’s this architectural and artistic significance that’s really the issue here. Most of the complaints against the Nottingham Terrance fence come from other owners of other self-aggrandizing mansions and McMansions surrounding Delaware Park. In commissioning the Shyshkin gates, their new Canadian neighbor has outdone them.
Walk around Delaware Park. The new fence is not the tallest, nor is it the most obnoxious. Those crowns go to a number of hedgerows, which historically were the original WASP manor barriers. And unlike the Shyshkin gates and see-through fence that’s supposed to accompany them, these hedgerows form visually impenetrable barriers, cutting off historic view lines from Delaware Park. The Shyshkin gates, like the ostentatious monuments to personal wealth that adorn Forest Lawn Cemetery, is more like a piece of public art. It emphasizes and frames the architecture behind it, attracting and welcoming public glances, no matter how evil its intent might be.
The real problem with the Shyshkin gate and fence is its architectural and artistic destiny to be noticed. By comparison, other Parkside houses look rather pedestrian. For the rich whiners, this significance poses the real threat. The Shyshkin gates don’t just up the ante for obnoxiousness—they threaten to send their striving neighbors unwillingly packing back to the middle class.
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