When plans for it first surfaced, I wondered if the new Gilder Center at the Natural History museum might end up looking overcooked.
From the outside it’s a white-pink granite cliff with yawning windows shaped a little like the openings to caves, nestling the museum’s wonderful Romanesque Revival addition from the turn of the last century. Past the front doors, that cliff face morphs. It becomes an atrium in the guise of a towering canyon, a city block deep.
For its architects, Jeanne Gang and her team, Gilder was clearly a gamble and leap of faith, bucking today’s innocuous norms, almost begging for charges of starchitectural self-indulgence.
Now that it’s built, I love it.
I wouldn’t go so far as to equate it with the curvaceous genius of Gaudi or with Saarinen’s groovy TWA Terminal, but it’s in the family. Like them, Gilder is spectacular: a poetic, joyful, theatrical work of public architecture and a highly sophisticated flight of sculptural fantasy. New Yorkers live to grouse about new buildings. This one seems destined to be an instant heartthrob and colossal attraction.
And for a meaningful portion of its user base, the part that hasn’t yet finished middle school, I expect it will simply be, like so much else at the museum, awesome.
It’s certainly a welcome change of topic from the Theodore Roosevelt statue in front of the museum’s Central Park West entrance, which was an apt, long-overdue target for protesters after George Floyd’s murder. Since 1940, Roosevelt, sitting on his charger, chest-puffed, head high, loomed above two downcast attendants, one Native American, the other African, standing at his feet.
The museum finally got city permission to ship the sculpture off to North Dakota last year. Among other things, that cleared the air for Gilder’s opening.
Back in 2014 the museum first announced plans for the 230,000-square-foot addition, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. At the time, City Hall pledged $15 million toward what was then Gilder’s $325 million budget. The hope was to open by 2019, the museum’s 150th anniversary. This was Natural History’s first major addition since the Rose Center for Earth and Space — Polshek Partnership’s striking update on Étienne-Louis Boullée’s famous tribute to Newton in the form of a glass box enclosing a model of the solar system — which replaced the beloved but quaint Hayden Planetarium in 2000.
Gilder would require demolishing several unlovable, back-of-house structures. They included a little-used Columbus Avenue entrance where West 79th Street dead ends into a ribbon of green called Theodore Roosevelt Park.
The new wing would need customizable galleries for an insectarium and a butterfly conservatory to be designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, both of which turn out to be incredible. Five stories of storage would house some four million scientific specimens — three stories of them with open exhibits visible through tall windows into the storerooms.
Gilder would also house new classrooms, laboratories and a library, along with a theater shaped like a hockey rink and nearly as large, for a state-of-the-art interactive display about the interconnectedness of all life on earth.
To house it all, Gang’s canyon, as atrium, would spill outside into the park to define the stony facade. Together they would make Gilder look as hefty as a Gothic cathedral. After scouting trips across the American West, the architect started modeling strata of weathered rock by carving ice.
All those suggestive creases and curves also conjured up stretchy sinews and tendons.
Skeptics asked whether the whole thing wasn’t really just an elaborate excuse to construct a big new party space for museum fund-raisers. The atrium will inevitably function as that. But Gilder needed to be big because it was conceived to link long-disconnected, far-flung parts of the museum.
Natural History evolved from a cross-and-square design devised in the 1870s by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Over many years, as it grew into one of the city’s tent-pole institutions, the museum accreted some two dozen buildings in different historical styles, increasingly pieced together like a crazy quilt.
To regulars, former dead-end galleries, like the ones for gems and minerals, were akin to Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley: secret, magical places. But for millions of visitors, the museum could be a frustrating maze, circulation a fiasco.
Gilder certainly doesn’t solve the whole problem. But some of the most intelligent and complex work by Studio Gang helps to rationalize the flow of visitors and make intuitive internal connections so people can focus more on collections, as opposed to wayfinding.
Delays plagued the project. Since 2014, the institution’s 150th anniversary has come and gone. Richard Gilder, the banker and philanthropist who seeded funding for the new wing, died in 2020. The budget has risen to $465 million as construction costs skyrocketed during the pandemic. The city’s contribution grew to $92 million. And Ellen Futter, Natural History’s long-serving, visionary president, who spearheaded both the Rose Center and Gilder expansions, retired in March.
The pandemic was only partly the problem. The project also ran into headwinds from neighbors who raised legal challenges based on Gilder’s incursion into a corner of the park. In 2019, the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division finally dismissed the last challenge.
Ongoing negotiations with the neighbors ended up trimming the center’s footprint in the park. Natural History also hired Reed Hilderbrand, the landscape architecture firm, to preserve some of the trees that, in early expansion plans, were likely to be felled, and to add more seating.
I suppose that’s a qualified argument for the public benefits of all those costly years of sometimes acrimonious community engagement. I frequented the bygone stretch of park where Gilder has now risen, which was nice. The new park, whose plantings are still underway, looks like it will be far more generous and gracious, opening up formerly closed-off green spaces.
And Gilder itself should return visitors to the roots of the museum in the notion of wonderment. Back in the mid-19th century, before Natural History existed, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in Lower Manhattan was the most popular museum in town. Over a couple of decades, more visitors reportedly paid its 25-cent admission fee than there were people in the United States.
They went to ogle dioramas and marvel at ventriloquists, glass blowers and a troupe of 200 “educated” white rats. They pondered a mummified monkey head sewn to a salmon’s tail — it was called the Fiji Mermaid — and watched performances by then-pop stars like Tom Thumb and Ned the Learned Seal, a marine mammal that played the hand organ.
“Why cannot we now have a great popular museum in New York without any ‘humbug’ about it?” asked The New York Times after Barnum’s museum burned down in 1868. City leaders agreed.
And from the ashes of Barnum’s fun palace emerged the American Museum of Natural History, which, crucially, retained an essential piece of Barnum’s DNA.
Like Barnum’s attic of curiosities and entertainments, Natural History descended from the “wonder cabinets” that began to proliferate in Europe during the 16th century: diverse collections of whatever were the biggest, smallest, rarest, most exquisite or baffling objects. This was an era of global exploration, colonial conquest, humanist curiosity and scientific advances. Wonderment was a desired middle state between delight and instruction, proving God’s inscrutable ingenuity.
But then the Enlightenment arrived like a second grade teacher replacing her overwhelmed substitute, and tipped the balance toward sober instruction. Wonder, Descartes had warned, could “pervert the use of reason.” And by the 19th century, wonder cabinets were yielding to what we now think of as the modern, encyclopedic museum.
The American Museum of Natural History became Exhibit A for such an institution — imperialistic and voracious, hunting down exotic animals and cultural artifacts in the name of science and scholarship. But visitors still went to it to be wowed by dinosaur bones and dioramas.
I was once inside the famous gorilla diorama, which reproduces a landscape in Central Africa where the naturalist and inventor Carl Akeley, the “father of modern taxidermy,” is buried. His death there made front-page news in 1926. Akeley killed, brought back and mounted the gorillas in the diorama. Years earlier, he had mounted Jumbo, the celebrity elephant, for Barnum.
I digress to Akeley because he came up with what is still a widely used construction process called “shotcrete,” which involves spraying concrete onto armatures of rebar and metal mesh, then carving or troweling the wet concrete by hand.
Gang’s canyon is made of Akeley’s shotcrete.
Computer programs helped devise the canyon’s parametric curves; Gang refined the creases and pleats. The design firm Arup handled the structural engineering, ensuring the entire structure could, like Jumbo playing Twister, support itself (and its visitors) on very few columns embedded underground.
I’m reminded of a project by Gang a decade ago, just before Gilder got underway: a small social justice center at Kalamazoo College in Michigan that involves concave facades with cordwood masonry and porthole windows. Its construction also depended on the architect’s collaboration with laborers who were invited to be creative and do their best.
What results with Gilder is an architecture almost in the vein of a Richard Serra sculpture, stressing its own mass and materiality. The shotcrete has a texture like sandpaper. The facade is not thin veneer or glass but brushed Milford Pink stone milled at the same granite quarry John Russell Pope used in the 1930s to design the museum’s pompous Central Park West facade.
All those tactile surfaces make more conspicuous, by contrast, the ethereal role that light plays in the building: Gilder, unlike most of the museum, is full of bird-friendly fritted windows looking back out onto the city. Rough surfaces also play off details like polished oak rails and a bean-shaped staircase (I’m not surprised Gang is an admirer of the great Japanese architect Toyo Ito) that culminates at the library, overlooking Theodore Roosevelt Park.
Gang has dressed up the library’s single column to resemble the stem of an oversize mushroom, with strip lights and ash panels branching out along the ceiling for its gills. Those lights sparkle through the trees in the park during the evening, when Gilder’s facade — knitting together the museum’s eclectic architecture along Columbus Avenue very beautifully — shifts toward reds and grays.
Over the years I’ve watched architects’ eyes roll at the mention of Gang’s canyon. I’ve heard grumbling that, in light of climate change, shotcrete isn’t the most sustainable material for a museum whose central themes are the sanctity of nature and the veracity of science.
But then, many of the greenest buildings turn out to be ones that last longest because they continue to be used and loved. Maybe I’m coming from a blinkered place, because I have grown up visiting Natural History and watched my children grow up there. Even today 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.
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.