The American Museum of Natural History’s ambitious $325 million expansion plan gained unanimous approval from New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday, greenlighting the 142-year-old institution to realize the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation.
Designed by Chicago-based firm Studio Gang with executive architect Davis Brody Bond, the new wing is a radical departure from the institution’s overwhelming Gothic Revival-style architecture, and introduces curvilinear forms inspired by how materials are deposited over time in nature, like melting ice and slot canyons—forms the commission found appropriate for a premiere science museum and research institution.
While the design of the Richard Gilder Center is unique, it isn’t unprecedented. "The essence of this great institution is excellent architecture of its time along the way," LPC Commissioner Frederick Bland said on Tuesday, motioning to the Rose Center, completed in 2000, "That's what we're seeing here today; a beautiful and brilliant example of a contemporary expression of a meaningful building."
The 135,000-square-foot addition was contentious with the Upper West Side community, who fretted over its contemporary look and more so the new wing’s impact on the surrounding Theodore Roosevelt Park. Studio Gang, in cooperation with the museum and community stakeholders, reformulated the wing’s footprint to minimize its encroachment on the surrounding park from one-half acre to one-quarter acre, reducing the number of trees being lost from nine to seven before filing plans with the Department of Buildings in September.
In order to construct the wing, the museum will demolish three buildings on its campus, including the more recent Weston Pavilion. Bill Higgins of preservation consultants Higgins Quasebarth & Partners noted that the buildings are "by no means crucial to the character of the institution."
The Richard Gilder Center will front on Columbus Avenue, bringing the rectilinear museum a grand entrance where an ancillary museum entrance now lets in to muddled corridors. The addition will help bring to light the museum’s original master plan, which called for four main entrances, one on each of the museum’s frontages along Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, and West 77th and 81st streets.
Commissioner Devonshire praised the design, saying the "sensuous, sinuous natural quality of this building is just heavenly." Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer also showed up to voice her support, praising the "sensitive and considerate end product" that came of working with the community.
But community support was not unanimous. Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City questioned the facade’s "need for such an aggressive convention" while a spokesperson for the Historic Districts Council noted that "some fine-tuning could help the building fit in even better."
But in the end the commissioners were not swayed from the path of approval. "I think it goes way beyond approval," LPC chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said, "It’s absolutely wonderful."