14 C
New York
Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Buy now


Wonder and awe in the stunning new wing of Natural History.

When its plans first surfaced, I wondered if the Natural History Museum’s new Gilder Center might end up looking overcooked.

From the outside, it’s a white-pink granite cliff with expansive windows shaped somewhat like the opening of a cave, nestled within the museum’s wonderful turn-of-the-century Romanesque Revival building. Through the front door, the cliff face changes. It becomes an atrium, a city block deep under the guise of a towering canyon.

Clearly a gamble and a leap of faith for its architect, Jeanne Gang, and her team, Gilder departs from today’s innocuous norms and almost begs charges of star architecture for self-indulgence .

Now that it’s built, I love it.

I wouldn’t compare it to Gaudi’s curvaceous genius or Saarinen’s stunning TWA terminal, but it’s in the family. Like them, Gilder is spectacular: the poetry of public architecture, the conviviality, theatrical productions and highly complex flights of sculptural fantasies. New Yorkers live to complain about new construction. It seemed destined to be an instant heartthrob and huge draw.

For the meaningful part of its user base, the part that hasn’t finished middle school, I expect it to be as great as many other things in the museum.

It’s certainly a welcome change of topic from the Theodore Roosevelt statue in front of the museum’s Central Park West entrance, a fitting, long-overdue protester after the murder of George Floyd. Target. Since 1940, Roosevelt has sat on the back of his horse, chest and head held high, above two dejected waiters at his feet, one Native American, the other African.

The museum finally received permission from the city last year to ship the sculpture to North Dakota. Among other things, this clears the air for Gilder’s opening remarks.

Back in 2014, the museum first announced plans for a 230,000-square-foot expansion, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. At the time, City Hall committed $15 million to Gilder’s then-$325 million budget. It is hoped to open before the museum’s 150th anniversary in 2019. This is the first major addition to Natural History since the Ross Center for Earth and Space – Polshek Partnership’s stunning update to Étienne-Louis Boullée’s homage to Newton in a glass box containing a model of the solar system – It replaced the beloved but quaint 2000 Hayden Planetarium.

Gilder needed to tear down several unflattering backstage structures. They include a little-used entrance on Columbus Avenue, a green ribbon at the end of West 79th Street called Theodore Roosevelt Park.

The new wing required customizable galleries for the Ralph Applebaum-designed insectarium and butterfly conservatory, both incredible. Five floors of storage will house around four million scientific specimens – three floors of open exhibits can be accessed through tall windows.

Gilder will also house new classrooms, laboratories and a library, as well as a theater shaped like a hockey rink and nearly as big for a state-of-the-art interactive display of the interconnectedness of all life on Earth.

To accommodate this, Gang’s ravine acts as an atrium that will extend out into the park to define the stone facade. Together they would make Gilder look as massive as a Gothic cathedral. After a scouting trip across the American West, the architect began by sculpting blocks of ice to mimic the formations of weathered rock.

All those suggestive creases and curves are also reminiscent of stretchy tendons and sinews.

Skeptics question whether the whole thing is really just an elaborate excuse for museum fundraisers to build a new big party space. The atrium will inevitably play a role. But Gilder needs to be big, because it’s designed to connect long-disconnected, widely distributed parts of the museum.

Natural History evolved from the cross and square designs designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mold in the 1870s. Over the years, as it grew into one of the city’s mainstay institutions, the museum added about two dozen buildings in different historic styles, which were increasingly pieced together like a crazy quilt.

For regulars, former cul-de-sac galleries, such as the Gems and Minerals Gallery, resemble Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley: The Secret, the Magical Place. But for millions of visitors, museums can be a frustrating maze, and circulation is a fiasco.

Gilder certainly doesn’t solve all problems. But some of Studio Gang’s smartest and most complex creations help smooth the flow of visitors and create intuitive internal connections so people can focus more on collecting and less on wayfinding.

Delays have plagued the project. Since 2014, the institution’s 150th anniversary has passed. Richard Gilder, the banker and philanthropist who financed the new wing, died in 2020. The budget has grown to $465 million as construction costs have soared during the pandemic. The city’s contribution grew to $92 million. Ellen Futter, Natural History’s long-serving and visionary president who led the Ross Center and Gilder expansion projects, retired in March.

The pandemic is only part of the problem. The project has also run into opposition from neighbors, who have filed a legal challenge against Gilder for trespassing on a corner of the park. In 2019, the Appeals Division of the New York State Supreme Court finally rejected the last challenge.

Ongoing negotiations with neighbors eventually reduced the center’s footprint in the park. Natural History also hired landscape architecture firm Reed Hilderbrand to preserve some trees that would have been felled in earlier expansion plans and to add more seating.

I guess that’s a qualified argument for the public good of all those years of costly and sometimes intense community engagement. I frequent past parks where Gilder is now rising and it’s good. Planting work is still underway on the new park, which will look more spacious and welcoming, opening up previously closed green spaces.

Gilder itself should take the visitor back to the museum’s roots with the concept of wonder. Back in the mid-1800s, before natural history, the PT Barnum American Museum in lower Manhattan was the most popular museum in town. Over the past few decades, more tourists have reportedly paid the 25-cent entry fee than the number of people in the United States.

They went to see dioramas and marveled at ventriloquists, glassblowers and a troupe of 200 “educated” white rats. They contemplated a mummy monkey’s head sewn into a salmon’s tail – known as the Fijian Mermaid – and watched performances by popular stars of the day such as Tom Thumb and Ned the learned seal, an accordion-playing sea seal mammal.

“Why can’t we now have a hugely popular museum in New York without any ‘scams’?” asked The New York Times after Barnum’s museum burned down in 1868. City leaders agreed.

From the ruins of Barnum’s interesting palace emerged the American Museum of Natural History, which, crucially, preserves a significant part of Barnum’s DNA.

Like Barnum’s Attic of Curiosities and Recreation, Natural History has its roots in the “cabinet of wonders” that proliferated in Europe beginning in the 16th century: collections of all kinds, whether the largest, the smallest, the rarest, the most Delicate or puzzling items. It was an age of global exploration, colonial conquest, humanitarian curiosity, and scientific progress. Wonder is the ideal intermediate state between joy and teaching, a testament to God’s inscrutable ingenuity.

But then enlightenment arrives, like a second-grade teacher who replaces her overwhelmed replacement and tilts the scales toward lucid teaching. Descartes had warned that miracles could “distort the use of reason.” By the 19th century, the cabinet of wonder gave way to what we now think of as the modern encyclopedic museum.

The American Museum of Natural History became the exhibit of such an institution—imperialism and greed, hunting exotic animals and artifacts in the name of science and scholarship. But tourists still visit to be wowed by dinosaur bones and dioramas.

I was inside the famous gorilla diorama recreating the Central African landscape where naturalist and inventor Carl Akeley, the “father of modern taxidermy,” is buried. His death there in 1926 made front-page news. Akeley kills, brings back and rides the gorilla in the diorama. He had ridden Jumbo, the celebrity elephant, for Barnum years ago.

I digress to mention Akeley because he proposed a construction process still widely used today called shotcrete, which involved spraying concrete onto a skeleton of rebar and metal mesh, then carving or troweling the wet concrete by hand. concrete.

The Gang’s canyon is made of Akeley’s shotcrete.

Computer programs helped design the canyon’s parametric curves; Gang refined the creases and folds. Design firm Arup was responsible for the structural engineering, ensuring the entire structure could support itself (and its visitors) on a handful of columns buried in the ground like Jumbo plays Twister.

I’m reminded of a project Gang had a decade ago, just before Gilder started: a small social justice center at Kalamazoo College in Michigan that involved concave exterior walls with cork masonry and portholes. Its construction also depends on the collaboration of architects and laborers who are invited to be creative and give their best.

Gilder’s result is a building almost in line with Richard Serra’s sculptures, emphasizing its own mass and materiality. Shotcrete has a sandpaper-like texture. Instead of thin veneer or glass, the facade is brushed Milford pink stone, the same granite quarry that John Russell Pope used in designing the museum’s grand Central Park West facade in the 1930s .

All those tactile surfaces, by contrast, make the ethereal role light plays in the building all the more compelling: Unlike most museums, Gilder is filled with bird-friendly glass windows that look back on the city. The rough surfaces also accentuate details such as the polished oak balustrades and the bean-shaped staircase (I’m not surprised that Gang is an admirer of the great Japanese architect Toyo Ito), which culminates in the library overlooking Theo Roosevelt Park.

Gang dressed the library’s monocolumn as the stem of an oversized mushroom, with light strips and ash panels branching out along the ceiling to form gills. Those lights glow among the trees in the park in the evening, when Gilder’s façade—which weaves together the museum’s eclectic architecture so beautifully along Columbus Avenue—turns red and gray.

For years, I’ve seen architects roll their eyes at the mention of Gang Canyon. I’ve heard complaints that shotcrete isn’t the most sustainable material for a museum centered on the sanctity of nature and scientific accuracy in light of climate change.

But then, many of the greenest buildings end up being the longest-lasting because they continue to be used and loved. Maybe I come from a narrow place because I grew up visiting natural history and watching my children grow up there. Even today, I find myself returning from another encounter with a giant squid or a narwhal diorama feeling like I am now navigating Gilder’s grotto galleries, squinting and looking through the transom and Sunlight pouring in from the rose window.

It’s not just about letting one’s disbelief go for a while and getting back to the fun of the streets and everyday life.

I guess I’d call it a miracle.

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected

- Advertisement -spot_img

Latest Articles