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Today’s curators and scientists are equally well-versed in the subject of evolution. As galleries adapt to the new needs of contemporary artworks — usually by introducing bigger, more flexible exhibition spaces — many are also re-evaluating their collections to better spotlight previously overlooked talents. Meanwhile, science museum educators are working overtime to teach the value of research, study and analysis during a time of environmental and biological crisis. 

An exterior view of the American Museum of Natural History's Gilder Center featuring a sinuous marble facade with curved windows.
The Gilder Center facade features Milford pink granite — the same stone used on the Museum of Natural History’s Central Park West entrance. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Two of this year’s major cultural architecture projects show how the latest generation of institutional expansions is navigating these shifts. In April, Studio Gang unveiled the Gilder Center, its long awaited addition to New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

Two months later, OMA (which worked alongside Cooper Robertson as executive architect) welcomed visitors to the revamped Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright–Knox).

In keeping with the recent tradition of museum architecture, both project teams have delivered the type of sculptural spectacle that has become a must ever since Gehry took Bilbao. But the beauty of the two structures is more than just skin deep.

How Do They Build Upon the Past?
An exterior view of the gem-like Buffalo AKG Art Museum featuring a central rectangular area framed in thick marble with a "veil" of glass draped over the sides.
OMA and Cooper Robertson’s crystalline addition to the Buffalo AKG Art Museum introduces 13 new galleries. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.
The Buffalo AKG Art Museum:

At the AKG’s new gemlike Jeffrey E. Gundlach Building, over 540 triangular glass panels create what OMA refers to as a “veil,” which drapes over the building’s cruciform core like a sheer tent, enclosing perimeter hallways that wrap around each floor’s galleries. “It’s a public engagement space that really promotes the diversity of activity that the museum has been conducting,” says firm partner Shohei Shigematsu, who led the AKG’s revitalization. “But it also creates a contrast with the existing buildings, which are more inward-looking.”

A view of the complete Buffalo AKG Art Museum campus showing the glassy new addition plus its two predecessors, a neoclassical building and a modernist addition.
The Gundlach Building joins the AKG’s two existing structures: the neoclassical Wilmers Building and the modernist Knox Building. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

Sure enough, the AKG’s original home, the 1905 Robert and Elisabeth Wilmers Building designed by E.B. Green, is a stately neoclassical landmark that could nevertheless come across as stiff or exclusive at a time when art galleries are striving to cultivate transparency and openness. “We pride ourselves on being custodians of marvellous artworks, but sometimes the general public may have a difficult time feeling at home in the organization. So we wanted to create a museum that’s a place where everybody could have a sense of belonging,” explains AKG director Janne Sirén, who kicked off the museum’s revitalization project with nine months of community meetings. 

An exterior view of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum's Knox building showing the glass ceiling and the modernist entrance, a glass rectangular box.
Common Sky, a sculpture by Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann of Studio Other Spaces, creates a canopy over the Knox Building’s formerly open-air courtyard, which often went to waste during Buffalo’s long winters. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

The end result includes the new Gundlach Building as well as renovations to its predecessors to create a full-blown museum campus. This means the scope of the project also extends to the AKG’s other historic facility, the Seymour H. Knox Building (designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft and completed in 1962). While rich in modernist beauty, the addition was not without its own baggage — namely, an internal courtyard that was hard to take advantage of during Buffalo’s long winters. Post-transformation, this courtyard is now covered by a glass and steel canopy that flows down into a single vortex-like column.

One of the best 2023 museum architecture additions was OMA's renovation to the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, which includes a special sculpture, Common Sky, by Studio Other Spaces that features a column-like vortex that extends outwards to create a glass ceiling.
The vortex-like column that supports the Knox Building’s new roof structure takes the place of a hawthorn tree that once stood in the same spot. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

Technically a sculpture, Common Sky by Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann’s firm Studio Other Spaces, this intervention is impressive not just for its savvy engineering (its tessellated web deftly manages sound and sunlight, creating gorgeous shadows while allowing for echo-free conversation) but also for being a way to navigate heritage sensitivities that made it easier to introduce a site-specific installation than to complete the full-blown architectural rethink that OMA originally attempted.

A mural at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum featuring brightly coloured tiles depicting an underwater universe.
A mural by artist Firelei Báez anchors the AKG’s restaurant, Cornelia. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

As a result, the courtyard is now a year-round, free-to-enter “town square” served by a new restaurant (itself accented by a vibrant nine-metre-long mural that artist Firelei Báez modelled after an Afrofuturist version of Atlantis). “Museums have a lot of difficulty in the dialogue between new and old, both because of aesthetic compatibility and because the role of the museum has been changing lately,” says Shigematsu. “[The Town Square] is a place of community engagement — not just somewhere to see art but somewhere to have exchanges.”

The Gilder Center:
The cave-like central atrium of the Museum of Natural History's Gilder Center, showing the sinuous forms that create ladders and openings on upper floors. At the centre is a grand staircase featuring bleacher seating.
The cavelike shotcrete structure that weaves throughout the Gilder Center’s five-storey atrium was made by spraying concrete onto rebar. Photo by Iwan Baan.
A close-up of the shotcrete forms that twist and turn throughout the Gilder Center to make it one of the best museum architecture additions of 2023.
Its sinuous forms create apertures and bridges that encourage exploration. Photo by Iwan Baan.

A similar social gathering spot sits at the heart of the American Museum of Natural History’s new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation in the form of a five-storey atrium complete with bleacher seating. (Granted, as with all grand staircases, this feature has unfortunate accessibility limitations.) Designed to replace a previous back-of-house structure that served as the museum’s Columbus Avenue entrance, the Gilder Center had a two-part mission: to facilitate easier movement between various parts of the museum and to deliver a major architectural jolt.

If the AKG’s Gundlach building takes inspiration from a veil, then the Gilder Center transports visitors to a canyon. Or perhaps it places them face-to-face with a giant fossil. “It was interesting to observe the museum’s different science experts react to our early concept images,” says Studio Gang partner Weston Walker, who leads the firm’s New York office. “We were working with this fluid idea of architecture as something that could be sculpted. Some saw geology, some saw biology and some saw something in the cosmos.”

Two people, one in a blue shirt and one in an orange shirt, admire the shotcrete forms in the atrium of the Gilder Center.
The structure’s bridges resolve connections to other museum buildings that had different floor plates. Photo by Iwan Baan.
A person sits on a bench built into the staircase in the atrium at the Gilder Center.
The design team coordinated the geometry to create an efficient load path that responds to the existing foundations below. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Whichever scientific metaphor you pick, the addition’s sinuous forms (created by spraying concrete over an elaborate rebar framework) weave their way throughout a space filled with bridges and apertures that reward exploration. The building’s expressive bends and twists are also a major feat of continuity, facilitating links to neighbouring structures with different floor plates while simultaneously responding to the structural constraints introduced by the existing service yard below. (With the help of structural engineering firm Arup and parametric design tools, the team coordinated the geometry of the structure such that walls are strategically positioned on top of areas of the foundation that are prepared to bear the load.)

A view of the specimens and objects featured in the exhibition displays built into the glass walls that line the atrium of the Gilder Center.
Spread across three floors, glass display walls showcase some 3,000 objects while looking into rooms where other specimens are being studied. Photo by Iwan Baan.

In another poetic (if purely coincidental) reference to the museum’s past, the shotcrete used to create these forms was invented by Carl Akeley, a pioneering taxidermist who hunted and mounted the gorillas found in one of the Museum of Natural History’s dioramas. “He’s legendary,” says Walker. “He even has a museum hall named after him. But we didn’t actually know about that connection until we were down that road already. When we found out, it felt like just another reason that this was the appropriate idea for this project.”

What’s On View?
A gallery in the Buffalo AKG Art Museum's new Gundlach Building featuring floor-to-ceiling glass that looks out the museum's neoclassical Wilmers building. Two abstract canvases are shown on the white wall to the side.
At the Buffalo AKG, a third-floor gallery featuring canvases by Anselm Kiefer looks out to the museum’s neoclassical Wilmers Building. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.
The Buffalo AKG Art Museum:

For all their visual flair, both additions also manage to radically improve a visitor’s relationship with their respective museum’s collection. In the AKG’s case, the 7,990 square metres of new space created by the Gundlach Building frees up the newly restored Wilmers Building for a greatly expanded showcase of its celebrated holdings. (Look for familiar masterpieces by Mark Rothko, Ed Ruscha and Joan Miró, but also for an arresting pairing of self-portraits by Horace Pippin and Jacob Lawrence — Black men who served in the armed forces during the First and Second World War, respectively — placed on either side of a doorway.)

An expansive gallery in the Buffalo AKG Art Museum's Gundlach Building, featuring several canvases, a large shimmering abstract sculpture and another sculpture of a tire.
Artworks on display in the Gundlach Building include Nick Cave’s Speak Louder, far left. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

In 2007, the AKG (then the Albright–Knox) de-accessioned 200 of its premodern works to create an endowment that has since allowed for the acquisition of art by 21st-century greats like Simone Leigh, a recent Venice Biennale exhibitor known for her sculptures of Black women. These new works are found back over in the Gundlach Building, where vast, open rooms ensure that powerful sculptures (like Nick Cave’s Speak Louder, which fuses megaphones, mannequins and mother-of-pearl buttons) and large scale multimedia canvases (see: Mickalene Thomas’s 6.1-metre wide, rhinestone-adorned Interior: Monet’s Blue Foyer) aren’t left feeling constrained. 

The Gilder Center:
A view of the Natural History Museum's Invisible Worlds immersive projection room, featuring bright blue biological imagery that looks like the inside of cells.
The Gilder Center’s interactive display Invisible Worlds offers a zoomed-in look at microscopic biology. Photo by Iwan Baan.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, the Museum of Natural History’s extra 21,370 square metres deliver a happy habitat for some of the city’s tiniest creatures, including 80 species of butterflies in a new vivarium and, in the ground-floor insectarium, honeypot ants that gorge on food until their abdomens have swollen to the size of grapes. (Both environments were designed by the team at Ralph Appelbaum Associates.) On the other end of the scale, the Gilder Center also accommodates massive projections inside an immersive, interactive theatre equipped with floor-to-ceiling screens and motion-activated surfaces featuring animations that zoom in — way in — on leaves and sea creatures.

How Do They Address Their Sites?
A view of the mirrored bridge that connects the Buffalo AKG Art Museum's Gundlach Building to the neoclassical Wilmers Building.
A bridge clad in reflective glass curves around a tree to connect the AKG’s Gundlach and Wilmers buildings. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.
The Gilder Center:

Given this focus on the earth’s wonders, it is only appropriate that the Gilder Center also pays careful consideration to the nature outside. Along with creating a new western entrance to the Museum of Natural History, the project introduces landscaping improvements by Reed Hilderbrand to the surrounding section of Theodore Roosevelt Park at 79th Street and Columbus Avenue. Inside the building, jelly bean–shaped windows frame views of the tree canopy, making the classrooms and public reading room that line the building’s outer perimeter feel like caves at the edge of a forest. (The mushroom-like column that anchors the addition’s public reading room gives that space an extra dose of storybook magic.)

A view of the reading room inside the Gilder Center, featuring a column that spirals outwards on the ceiling to integrate lighting and acoustic fins. The back wall features a curved glass window and the side wall is lined with a floor to ceiling bookshelf.
A fourth-floor reading room is anchored by a mushroom-like column that integrates lighting and acoustic fins. Photo by Alvaro Keding.
The Buffalo AKG Art Museum:

The AKG is even further-reaching in its regard for its site. By burying a parking lot, OMA reinstated the Wilmers Building’s original grand staircase and made space for a sprawling front lawn (by landscape studio Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates) that becomes an extension of the adjacent Frederick Law Olmsted–designed Delaware Park. The firm also introduced a reflective serpentine bridge to link the Gundlach and Wilmers buildings, thereby solving another former flaw: the AKG’s lack of a true loading dock. (Previously, a crane was used to lift most artworks in through a side window.) While the ADA compliant bridge makes for a fun visitor journey, its twisting arrangement also ensures a gradual enough slope to allow for the safe transfer of art between the Gundlach Building’s dedicated cargo area and the AKG’s two older facilities.

A view of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum's Gundlach Building at dusk, showing the columns of the adjacent Wilmers Building in the foreground.
By burying a former parking lot, OMA and landscape studio Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates introduced a front lawn set to be used for outdoor performances and events. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.

The Gundlach Building also mirrors its predecessors in other ways. Delightfully chunky marble (sourced from the same quarry as the stone found in the Wilmers Building) borders the front doorway before continuing inside, where it frames dramatic passageways between rooms. Look down and you’ll find that the floors match the fine-grained terrazzo floor of the Knox Building’s Town Square in most areas but transition to a surprising supersize arrangement of stone in select corners.

The double-height perimeter atrium in the Buffalo AKG Art Museum's Wilmers Building is enclosed within a grid of steel and glass. One person stands admiring a wooden sculpture that sits in the atrium. Up above, another person stands in a glass box that protrudes out from the wall to look into the atrium.
Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Blackened Word holds court in the Gundlach Building’s outer Sculpture Terrace. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.
A view of the terrazzo floor in the Buffalo AKG Art Museum's Gundlach Building. The stone transitions from a fine grain to larger stones as it moves towards the staircase, which features curved steel handrail. Ahead, a hallway features doorways framed in borders of marble.
Terrazzo floors transition from fine-grained pattern to areas with supersized pieces of stone. Photo by Marco Cappelletti.
Museums for A New Moment
Two people sit on a bench looking through a jelly bean-shaped window into the atrium of the American Museum of Natural History's Gilder Center.
Photo by Iwan Baan.

As it turns out, effective institutional expansion is not just about making something bigger. It’s about creating more space for fresh thinking. For Buffalo in particular — a city that fell into post industrial malaise after its steel production boom, but now seems to be on the cusp of rebirth — the AKG’s evolution serves as an inspiring example. And at the American Museum of Natural History, the Gilder Center demonstrates the type of morphological adaptation that would have left Darwin transfixed. As it turns out, architects know a thing or two about evolution themselves. 

How the Gilder Center and Buffalo AKG Meet the Role of a Modern Museum

Radical yet respectful additions to two New York State institutions offer insights into today’s cultural architecture.

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