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•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : May 12, 2023
It may sound inconsequential but despite its primordial appearance, the cave-like structure called the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, is in fact the latest addition to the American Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. The 21,000-square-metre $465 million building is named after Richard Gilder, an American billionaire investor, and philanthropist who co-created the Central Park Conservancy and set up the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the museum. He died in 2020. The project was first announced in 2014 and the building broke ground in 2019, the year when it was originally planned to be completed to mark the museum’s 150th anniversary.
Designed by Chicago’s now leading architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang and opened to the public earlier this month, this organic wonder—a blob-like building fluidly wrapped around a vast central atrium—connects multiple existing facilities at the museum on four levels. The Gilder untangles many former dead ends and directs circulation flows in comfortable loops with many moments of pure visual delight. Accessed from Theodore Roosevelt Park where Columbus Avenue meets 79th Street, on the opposite side of the museum’s main entrance vis-à-vis Central Park, the Center brings to the museum such new features as an insectarium, butterfly vivarium, invisible worlds, immersive interactive experience, Research Library Learning Center, state-of-the-art learning labs, floor-to-ceiling collection displays, and, as one would expect in this day and age, the Restaurant at Gilder.
However, the most impressive thing about the new building is its architecture. Well, the façade, which is designed to look like geological strata and clad in angled narrow strips of Milford Pink Granite, the same stone used for the Museum’s main building, around deep-set hollow-like windows, may not be exactly appealing to everyone. Not because it is not beautiful, but because it introduces an entirely unorthodox aesthetic, especially in the midst of a metropolis and, particularly, right next to the museum’s formal Romanesque Revival facades. It looks unsettling and requires some adjustment in thinking. Are we in the city or are we in a canyon? All we can be sure of at this intriguing point is that we are at a threshold of something quite unique and extraordinary and we are certainly welcome here.
Once the visitors step inside through a huge irregularly shaped multi-story glass wall, they will encounter an ample, seemingly unbound space gracefully accentuated by arched and rounded openings, crisscrossed by massive bone-like bridges, and topped by organically outlined skylights that bring natural light from every direction. Whatever you think of this striking space, its power to fix our attention to its chic rough-textured curves is undeniable. We haven’t even embarked on the journey toward discovering the amazing world that nature has to offer, but already at first glance, the new Gilder Center is nothing short of absolutely mesmerising. The space is an event in itself and it will undoubtedly become one of New Yorkers’ favourite spots and a popular destination for some of the city’s most spectacular gatherings. They will be unforgettable.
The interior can hardly be compared to other architectural precedents. There is, of course, Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Mila in Barcelona, nicknamed La Pedrera (Stone Quarry in Catalan). And there is Eero Saarinen's TWA Terminal, inspired by a wonderful sensation of taking off, right here at New York’s JFK Airport. But unlike those examples being inspired by abstract metaphors, here Gang collapsed the building’s function and form into a neat hand-and-glove singularity. The building is literally turned into a cave. It is what it is, and it is perfectly appropriate. After all, where would you rather want to learn about biodiversity, animal migration, gemstones, or our cosmic neighbours, inside a conventional building or in such an awesome place like the new Gilder? In that sense, the structure is much closer in spirit to another architectural gem across Central Park, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum—a sculptural cavity, more powerful than any masterpiece put on display within. What a joy would it be to experience it in between exhibitions, entirely barren! That’s exactly what Gang’s Gilder Center offers.
There is a story within a story here. It is in the building’s making. The cave is made of concrete to be sure but not conventional cast-in-place reinforced concrete. The method is called shotcrete. The material can take any shape; it is a cost-effective way of applying concrete mix directly by spraying it under high pneumatic pressure through a hose onto rebar cages that were digitally modelled and custom-bent. It eliminates the waste of formwork and achieves the entire interior’s continuity and seamlessness. The technology is widely used to quickly build durable walls, floors, tunnels, dams, and other infrastructure projects, stabilise soil slopes along highways, or repair wall cracks. Curiously, the material was first introduced in 1907 by Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy and all in all modern genius. He invented shotcrete while repairing the crumbling facade of the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago where he was the chief taxidermist. He also spent many years working right here at the museum where his lifelike dioramas—many progressive New Yorkers find them quite spooky—can be experienced at what is called the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.
The building's design process is no less fascinating than its final appearance. The architects ventured to canyons and gorges in the southwest of the United States. The team was inspired by natural form-making processes—porous geological formations shaped by wind and water. Studio Gang developed its vision while experimenting with erosion, tectonics, and other geological processes to convey a sense of porosity and flow. The architects even used giant blocks of ice by melting them with hot water in their attempts to achieve cavernous, fluid interior spaces. The result is not only unlike anything else built in New York, but it stands out in Gang’s own oeuvre as well, although many of her buildings consistently derive their inspiration from the natural environment. The architect’s façade for the Lavezzorio Community Center in Chicago was inspired by rock layers and her Aqua Tower’s waving floor slab outlines, also in Chicago, evoke water ripples, sand dunes, and rock outcroppings along the shores of Lake Michigan. Particularly her residential towers are rigorously designed based on ingeniously put-together geometric modules into forms and patterns inspired and conditioned by nature, social interactions, energy efficiency, traffic flows, views, sun angles, and wind patterns.
Experiencing the building shortly after it opened its doors to the public makes me feel quite confident about its positive impression and performance. I have seen looks on people’s faces, both when they first encounter it from Columbus Avenue, seemingly unaware of its existence, and upon entering. Discovering it brings excitement and joy. Visually and particularly sensually, Gang’s new organic building is a wonderful relief from Manhattan’s blocky concrete, steel, and glass stockpile. No wonder the space is packed and many are planning to acquire annual memberships for the first time. Exploring the museum’s four-block campus properly requires many visits.
Unfortunately, shotcrete does not extend beyond the atrium. Its sprawling continuous surface that one would expect to also define new adjacent exhibition areas ends quite abruptly, even showing its thin substance at times. Suddenly, visitors come across straight, plastered walls and squarish rooms with office-like acoustic ceiling tiles, as in the case of the butterfly vivarium. Another miss is a huge blank wall at the gorgeous central stair’s top landing. It hides the back of the preexisting Giant-Screen Theater, not very successfully. This wall is entirely unadorned, even though it smacks you in the face from many of the atrium’s best vantage points. Some of the columns that rest on the ground floor are quite clumsy and resemble elephant legs. In general, there is a lack of refined details; they seem to be sacrificed to the overall appearance of roughness. Still, there are plenty of appealing features. There are flattened arches that are absolutely stunning. Benches around the central stair are elegant. Circular light fixtures integrated into the floors throughout in a variety of sizes are beautiful and evoke drops of sun glitter. Finally, the texture of the shotcrete is quite handsome and serves well as a background for taking selfies and portrait photos.
Gang’s Gilder Center reflects the latest tendencies by architects to look for their inspirations far beyond what is associated with conventional and even unconventional buildings. In the 20th century buildings were often designed as abstract geometric objects. Wright’s Guggenheim is basically an enlarged sculpture. But now the direction toward making buildings more abstract and complex, as achieved by Frank Gehry in Bilbao or Zaha Hadid in Baku, is being interrupted by a new phenomenon and desire to fuse architecture with the kind of formations, flows, and textures that can only be found in the organic world. It is this romance between architecture and nature that we see manifested at the Gilder Center in the heart of New York, the city which is so defined by its omnipresent orthogonal grid and prismatic buildings. Will Jeanne Gang’s honourable attempt to bring an organic character to one of New York’s most popular places help to reconcile the city’s relationship with nature and make it more mellow in the process?
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