The American Museum of Natural History’s Wondrous New Wing
Studio Gang’s long-awaited expansion of the American Museum of Natural History opens this week, affording the New York institution a bona fide architectural treasure that’s sure to captivate generations of visitors.
Dead ends aren’t the aptest metaphor for a museum seeking to instill wonder and curiosity in the minds of those traversing its halls. So when Studio Gang was tapped to conceive a contemporary addition to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, one of the city’s most beloved cultural touchstones long afflicted with poor circulation and wayfinding, forming new connections with dead ends was key.
But that seems like a minor detail within the larger scheme of the stellar Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, which officially opens on Thursday. The long-awaited unveiling takes place nearly ten years after AMNH announced $325 million plans for Gilder to open in 2019, the museum’s 150th anniversary. Delays plagued the project—the budget swelled to $465 million as construction costs surged, and neighbors raised legal challenges. The museum triumphed, and now New York has received a breathtaking monument to science and discovery that’s sure to captivate generations of visitors.
The Gilder Center’s power lies in its architecture. “The architecture enhances the feeling of discovery,” says Studio Gang founder and Surface cover star Jeanne Gang. “It’s really about science education, which is near and dear. It will help people discover science at a time when science is under attack.”
From the renovated Theodore Roosevelt Park, visitors enter a dramatic, cave-like atrium lined in sinuous concrete forms that swoop and bend through five levels of vertical space and connect to the museum’s existing structure. Studio Gang devised the free-flowing forms using “shotcrete,” a flexible design technique pioneered by early AMNH taxidermy artist Carl Akeley, in which structural concrete is sprayed directly onto rebar and metal mesh, and hand-finished before it cures. “You can sandblast it smooth,” Weston Walker, a partner at Studio Gang, told the New Yorker, “but we didn’t.”
That’s probably for the best. Entering the Gilder Center’s grotto-like galleries replicates the experience of traversing a cave, unsure of the wonders awaiting within. On that note, it’s a little bit of everything: a half-dozen exhibition spaces, an insectarium, a butterfly conservatory, 18 classrooms, two shops, a ticketing area, a high-ceilinged library, and a table-service restaurant nestled underneath a giant honeycomb light fixture. An immersive experience that recounts the story of the earth and its organisms on a 12-minute loop dials into contemporary trends, but won’t distract from the sheer awe evoked by Studio Gang’s elaborate architecture.
There are no dead ends—figurative or literal—in sight. “I find myself returning from another encounter with the model of a giant squid or the narwhal diorama feeling something I now feel navigating Gilder’s grotto-galleries, squinting into the sun that pours through its transom and rose windows,” writesNew York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. “It’s more than just the pleasure that comes from allowing one’s disbelief to be briefly suspended before trudging back out into the streets and daily life. I guess I’d call it wonder.”