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OMA's Albright-Knox proposal undoes the work of Buffalo's most famous architect

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It’s a mistake to do away with Gordon Bunshaft’s addition to the New York museum

Image courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York. © Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Photograph by Tom Loonan.

Art museums are often their own worst enemy. Witness the endless series of expansions of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which ate up Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s exquisitely designed Folk Art Museum next door, a building that was only twelve years old. At the time this was announced, MoMA Director Glenn D. Lowry proclaimed “floor plates will extend seamlessly”—as if the ability to have seamless floor plates was the sole definition of a successful museum.

Now, we see an even greater travesty in Buffalo. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, one of the finest collections of 20th century art in the United States, needs more space. They’ve hired the New York office of Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA to come up with a masterplan and design for a renovation and expansion of their building.

I was born in Buffalo, studied at SUNY Buffalo, and still maintain a membership to the Albright-Knox. Bunshaft’s design was so pivotal in shaping my view of what architects do, I featured it in my cover letter when I successfully applied to work at SOM. We can’t save every old building simply because it’s old, but when we have the option to protect a vital piece of architectural history, I say we take it.

The basic premise of this proposal is to demolish the galleries and courtyard of Gordon Bunshaft’s spectacular midcentury addition in favor of a bloated, ill-defined, glass-walled lobby with gallery space on top. In the words of Albright-Knox director Janne Sirén, “If you're a Buff State student parking your car on Lincoln Parkway there, you can cut through the welcome hall.”

That’s the design concept: Let’s demolish a masterwork by one of the finest American architects of the 20th century—who was a Buffalo native—so college students can take a shortcut to the free street parking on the other side of the museum.

The current building at the Albright-Knox consists of an E.B. Green-designed Beaux Arts building from 1905, with a 1962 addition by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s most famous designer, Gordon Bunshaft. The expansion consists of a low, white, stone-clad plinth with a black glass auditorium that serves as a minimal counterpoint to the more ornate older wing. It is a brilliant balancing act that puts auditorium visitors up in the trees of the park while acknowledging its predecessor through a carefully edited balancing of the visual weight of the two buildings.

At the community meeting held by the Albright-Knox last week, a great deal of time was spent discussing the complex programmatic requirements of an art museum. It was also made clear that there is a desperate need for more space: The current building can only show about 3 percent of the museum's collection. The architect’s job is to take these complex program elements and synthesize those with the existing site—and this is where the design falls flat.

While presenting the scheme to the community, the Albright-Knox team discussed the importance of Delaware Park (the museum is located at the park’s edge) and Buffalo’s park system as a whole. OMA’s New York-based director Shohei Shigematsu explained that the Albright-Knox was built at an important location and stressed that the base of the Bunshaft building forms a wall that divides the city from the park.

Delaware Park is incredibly compromised, but the museum is the least of its problems. The heart of the park has been converted to a golf course, and the two halves of it are divided by a mid-20th century freeway. It’s easy to walk around either end of the Albright-Knox, but it’s nearly impossible to cross the freeway.

Buffalo has enough empty space—half the city’s population has vacated since the 1950s and empty lots litter many of the city’s residential neighborhoods. Pretending that the building's footprint needs to be minimized to preserve the park creates an unnecessary and simplistic narrative that parks are good and buildings are bad.

The parking lot should be put underground so a new building can be built in its place. Creating a street edge for the museum that provides an urban experience and embraces the pedestrian realm of Elmwood Avenue should be a top priority. Instead, we see a massing design that installs a huge suburban-style front yard with hundreds of parking spaces below it.

Presenting a design story with diagrams that make it seem impossible to have designed anything else given the program and a set of “community” driven priorities is a way for OMA to absolve themselves of responsibility for the end product. The Folk Art Museum didn’t have to die for MoMA’s “floor plates,” and the Bunshaft addition in Buffalo doesn’t need to be sacrificed for a new loading dock and a marginally quicker route to Delaware Park.

The Albright-Knox should embrace Mr. Bunshaft as a Buffalo-born hero who rose to become one of the most important designers of his generation, winning the 1988 Pritzker Prize, and designing buildings that would define American architecture. His portfolio includes some of the best buildings of the postwar era, including Lever House, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C.

Buffalo’s cultural leaders have dreamt for decades of making the city an architectural destination for visitors from around the world, but this enthusiasm does not go much deeper than Frank Lloyd Wright. While Wright’s Martin House is one of his best works and its restoration is a success story, this enthusiasm needs to extend to a broader range of works from more than one era. When the Albright-Knox’s director talks about “building something that would become another pearl in Buffalo's pearl necklace of architects” we should ask him to make sure Gordon Bunshaft is among those pearls.

Mark Hogan, AIA, is a principal at OpenScope Studio in San Francisco, an architecture firm focused on improving cities with specialties in urban housing, retail interiors, and public space design. Prior to OpenScope, Mark was an associate at David Baker Architects and worked in the London office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.