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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New York’s splashy new Gilder Center is all seduction

By Philip Kennicott Washington Post

NEW YORK – Walk the perimeter of the American Museum of Natural History and you sense this isn’t a building, but a citadel formed by accretion. To the south, a Romanesque revival facade suggests a well-defended castle, protecting treasure within. From the east, a giant triumphal arch – dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt – creates a monumental entrance that glorifies the intellectual and political power of science. To the north, a cube of glass encases the metallic orb of a planetarium, a 2000 addition that gives off a whiff of yesterday’s futurism, a cinematic death star defending its masonry neighbors in a new, uncertain digital age.

The original 1877 building has grown not just to house the museum’s burgeoning collections and encompass its expanding role as an educator, entertainer and research institution, but to project an evolving sense of science’s self-conceit. It is a collection of buildings, but also a collection of messages: Science gathers the treasure of the world; science explores and conquers the unknown; science civilizes; and science offers hope and utopian fantasy.

This month, with the opening of the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, there is yet a new building and yet a new message. Designed by the Chicago-based Studio Gang, led by the acclaimed architect and MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, the Gilder Center presents a sculpted, geological face to the world, cool and cavelike within, with broad, undulating lines of windows clad in creamy pink granite without. It has fundamentally changed the most ragged face of the complex, its western side, creating a new entrance to the building as impressive as the one facing Central Park.

The $465 million building adds 190,000 square feet of space, including an atrium that soars five stories to giant skylights above, a new insectarium, butterfly room, classrooms, library and five vertical floors of collections storage behind glass walls. The architectural brief was complex, with multiple functions and needs, both front of house and behind the scenes. Perhaps the greatest challenge was to fit this new structure into the existing one, while creating a more logical flow throughout the entire campus. According to the museum’s count, the Gilder Center has 33 points of connection to 10 of the museum’s more than two dozen existing buildings.

It doesn’t take long wandering the older galleries to know why the museum wanted something new, more open and full of light. In many of these exhibition halls, science is presented theatrically, frozen vignettes of wild animals and life-size human dioramas, with darkened lighting in a warren of anthropological peep shows. It is easy to get not just lost, but existentially discombobulated in these spaces – is this a theme park or museum; is this science or voyeurism? These exhibits have been around for so long that they are quasi-historic objects in their own right.

The Gilder Center can’t reconfigure the guts of a building that has grown to fill in almost all of its internal spaces, originally intended to be open-air courtyards. But it can create a new introduction to the museum. It sits symmetrically opposite the giant triumphal arch of the east face, and sends a fundamentally opposite message: Forget all those troubling connections of American science to Manifest Destiny and imperialism and its occasional byways into the pseudoscience of race and eugenics. No, science is open and accessible, it’s fun and it’s cool. We have butterflies and ants carrying their oversize lunch through glass tubes, and an immersive theater with a 360-degree video wall celebrating the complexity of life.

If the older galleries are built around monumental objects and chronological narratives, the new ones mimic social media’s traffic in bite-size morsels of fascinating stuff. The glass walls of the collections’ storage feature myriad small displays of tantalizing objects – dishware from Maoist China, the skeleton of a giant grouper, astronomical instruments and maps, drawings and documents from various exhibitions. There is substance here, but it also feels a bit like watching Instagram reels or TikToks: short bits, well presented, not too taxing and on to the next thing.

The building (and the exhibitions within, designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates) does all this in a contemporary voice while being fundamentally traditional. The atrium is gigantic and awe-inspiring, a bleached riff on Utah’s sandstone landscape, full of arches, bridges and rounded forms seemingly abraded by water, wind or time.

But this is Flintstones modernism, seemingly new but really quite old. Immediately in front of you, as you enter, is a giant staircase rising to the second floor – essentially the same configuration as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Renwick Gallery in Washington, and innumerable other grand cultural palaces. For decades, architects have been shy about such gestures, with their 19th-century associations of grandeur and the metaphorical suggestion that the mind is elevated as the body climbs upward. But it’s back. Unfortunately, this staircase terminates on the second floor with a blank white wall blocking forward flow.

Although the building, constructed of structural concrete sprayed onto rebar, seems to flow in all directions, the basic geometry is also traditional: a grand central core with two side aisles of smaller spaces. The 33 connections to existing buildings are indeed complex, but not exactly congenial as visitor space. The security doors were closed when I visited, but I went down the passageways as far as I could and they seemed like blandly institutional corridors with one exception: well-placed windows offer a fascinating view to the interior of the complex, with its array of styles, materials and mechanical systems. That is an honest and welcome gesture, an acknowledgment that the building, like science, is not a grand edifice, adheres to no divine plane and is cobbled together as haphazardly as our understanding of the world around us.

The building photographs well, and it is sure to delight, especially younger visitors. The expressive potential of concrete was one of the great architectural adventures of the 20th century, and it’s good to have a building that gives a contemporary gloss on the work of Corbusier, Eero Saarinen and Oscar Niemeyer, among many others. Conventional expectations about how buildings should express their relationship to structure are now antipodal to where they were in the mid-20th century: Back then, one wanted to see in a glance the rational structure, how it stands up; today, one wants all of that hidden, in favor of neo-Baroque fantasies that aren’t really buildings, but portals of mystery and wonder.

Does this building earn its keep? It has been built to target Gold level LEED environmental certification, a popular global standard often cited by architects. But does it fulfill a need so urgent that the environmental cost of its construction – rivers of concrete, forests of steel, the cost of quarrying granite in Massachusetts, milling it in Germany and assembling in New York – is offset by what the Gilder Center will add to the sum total of human knowledge and happiness? Does it extend our planetary future, or attenuate it?

The question is impertinent. Unless, of course, it is time we start asking it of everything we build. It is a cruel standard to apply to any single structure, but perhaps institutions that have, at the core of their mission, a profound concern about climate change should be in the vanguard of asking it.

This question has been gathering force around the edges of architecture criticism for years now. It’s haunted my response to new buildings for years, as well. But the Gilder Center, so splashy and inviting, made me think about it with a renewed sense of distress.

It comes back to the idea of wonder, the basic message the new facade puts to the world. Wonder is the seed of knowledge, said Francis Bacon. But he went on to explain that wonder is also an imperfect knowledge, a starting point of limited purpose unless one goes further, to knowledge itself. Standing in the dazzling and occasionally dizzying immersive theater – an exhibition called “Invisible Worlds” – I felt like wonder was being packaged as its own destination, with no onward journey. The world is full of complexity, of connections, of billions of this and trillions of that, and isn’t it wonderful?

I hope the Gilder Center is a source of wonder that leads to other things. If so, then perhaps the cost was worth it.

But I worry that not only will the Gilder Center soon look as dated as some of the lesser brutalist buildings of the last century, it will function as a kind of one-hour tour route for visitors who want the wonder, hold the science. Despite its connections to the rest of the building, it’s not clear if this is designed as an introduction, or alternative – fast, fun and fragmented – to the main complex of the museum.

Museums have used architecture to rethink their identity for as long as they have been public institutions. The fashion was reinvigorated more than a quarter-century ago when they started engaging star architects to create a new generation of wildly sculptural buildings that brought new delight to the experience of museum going. But at some point, a new trend will emerge: not to build, not to pump more carbon into the atmosphere, not to put institutional identity ahead of global responsibility. At some point, survival will outweigh branding.