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OMA's plan for the Albright-Knox chases the contemporary to the detriment of its past

But there are stealth alternatives

Aerial view of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Blake Dawson

The future of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in Buffalo, New York, is a blue foam rectangle.

Shohei Shigematsu, partner-in-charge at OMA New York, lifts the block—which represents the new gallery space his firm is designing for the museum as part of its $125 million dollar expansion—over a model of the existing campus, set on a knoll overlooking Hoyt Lake in Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1876 Delaware Park.

The expansion, whose concept design was announced in June, will also include an underground parking garage, renovations of its existing neoclassical 1905 and modernist 1962 buildings, and new education facilities and offices.

He holds the block over a model of the 1962 building, the previous expansion designed by Buffalo native Gordon Bunshaft for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Bunshaft’s addition combines a square-donut courtyard, not unlike the elevated box at his Lever House in New York, with ground-floor galleries and a floating, black-glass auditorium—the yin to E.B. Green’s white columned yang.

It doesn’t fit—it’s far too large—but the scheme OMA has proposed bears the fingerprints of designing by boxes: They split the blue box in half, lofting half of the new gallery space in a glass box (or two) elevated above Bunshaft’s courtyard, which would be removed. The other half would be buried underground, next to two levels of parking, in the broad lawn on the Elmwood Avenue side of the museum. The galleries would be topped by a sculpture terrace and a new stair built on the footprint of the 1905 building’s original grand flight.

“We have been looking at the locations for the volume placement for almost half a year,” Shigematsu says. “Somehow this announcement came out a little clumsy, in my opinion, because I think we didn’t really get into the care that we have been putting into in terms of restoration and preservation of the existing building. It was a little too much focused on the volume placement announcement.”

That’s because OMA proposes taking out that courtyard, cutting Bunshaft’s building in half and replacing the square donut with a glass-walled, publicly accessible lobby, with restaurant and gift shop. In his public presentation in Buffalo, Shigematsu showed a conceptual drawing of a bridge, drawn upward into a curve by architect’s fingers, linking the 1905 building to Bunshaft’s now-separate auditorium.

Aerial view of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery with placement of the plan for renovation.
Courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery and OMA

“This is already quite offensive for Bunshaft lovers, but it is a notional thing. It creates a gateway to the park at large. Before 1905 the concourse”—a gathering space within the park—“was built here, now it would be like a town green and a public space.” I prefer the literal open-air version of the bridge to its translation, which raises a host of concerns about the treatment of that vast lobby ceiling, the placement of security functions, the reflectivity of glass.

Though Shigematsu seems to have studied the 1962 building carefully, noting the way the 1905 building’s southern colonnade is reflected in its black glass, and the mirrored rhythm of column and mullion, he says declaring the whole building sacrosanct is “a little bit of backward thinking.” The walled courtyard, in his view, stops up the works, blocking both north-south access between the building’s wings (because Bunshaft makes you go up to enter either the 1905 galleries or the auditorium), and east-west access between the “city” side on Elmwood and the park because the courtyard is not a thruway. “The museum’s program needs are very different from 60 years ago.”

The design seems almost inevitable as Shigematsu lays it out, Goldilocks style, clicking through renderings of other ideas OMA considered along the way. This scheme (an addition to the north of the 1905 building) makes it a railroad car; this scheme (building a separate, faceted icon on the site of the museum’s current office building and library) makes everyone walk too far. The only answer to the problems of the big blue foam block is here, at the center of it all.

The one that makes my eyes light up is burying the whole thing.

An exterior view of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Mark Dellas

“This was how we thought we could make everything in front underground, almost stealth, so it doesn’t touch anything of the existing,” Shigematsu says. “But this is too much excavation and for Jeffrey’s wish as a main donor, he wanted to continue the architecture legacy of Buffalo by creating some visible part as a museum.” The request for a tangible link to Olmsted’s park had also been set out in the competition brief.

When I speak to Jeffrey Gundlach, the donor who promised to match up to $42.5 million for the extension, he stresses his desire for the museum to be able to display much more of its collection, and for better connections between museum and its surroundings. "There's been no awareness of the park since the 1962 building was built. It is not a sensible entrance," he says. "I think some visitors to the city don't even know it's on the park."

However, he is, by his own account "not a micromanager. I don't have any formal arrangement for approval, though I think it is rather typical in this arrangement" that he not dislike the ultimate design.

In other interviews he's been more bombastic about his strategic goals for the Albright-Knox, down to getting Buffalo up front in the name. After the expansion is complete, the museum will be known as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, putting its three major benefactors on initialized par. Gundlach made his gift with the desire to for the museum to compete with downstate institutions like the Whitney and the Guggenheim. Shigematsu shows me that the Guggenheim's rotunda would fit into the new glass link.

“Our hope is we get the Bilbao effect here, to create a destination,” Gundlach told the New York Times last year. “It’s a world-class museum in terms of its holdings. Hopefully, it will become a world-class location.”

All these justifications have resulted in a concept that looks like a caricature of a world-class museum. The new building is in the middle, taller than the rest, with the grandest (and primary) entrance. It honors the museum imperatives of right now over the past.

What will we get for gutting and cutting Buffalo’s best postwar building? A giant lobby, with a gift shop and space suitable for event rental. Hardly core functions, whatever museums need to do to live. (The Albright-Knox turned down my request to speak to museum leadership saying, in an email, “We look forward to sharing more details as we move through schematic design in the fall.”)

"We are also not in the business of collecting buildings. We are an art museum and our service is to our public and to the artworks in our custody," Sirén told the Buffalo News. "The buildings are here to serve us, and not us as the staff, but the public and the art. That is our foremost responsibility. The buildings are the utilitarian tools, in some respect, that allow us to accomplish our mission."

You can’t call buildings “utilitarian tools” while also emphasizing your stewardship of Buffalo’s preferred past, by emphasizing the beauties of the 1905 E.B. Green Albright building and Olmsted’s surrounding Delaware Park. Buffalo has always had a blind spot for postwar architecture, ending many lists of its most famous architects with the Saarinens, whose Kleinhans Music Hall opened in 1940. That’s why Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments were demolished last year, and accounts of the buildings rarely mention Minoru Yamasaki’s One M&T Plaza (with a Harry Bertoia fountain out front) or Edward Durrell Stone’s Evening News building.

In this case, the Albright-Knox seems to be trying to rewrite history, repeating the canard that Bunshaft’s building was built as an auditorium, not galleries, so that’s the only part worth saving. According to the history books, this is simply not true. Bunshaft’s brief, according to Carol Herselle Krinsky’s 1988 book on the architect, included 30,000 square feet of exhibition space and period photos of the building taken by Ezra Stoller show modern art on every wall of the ground floor. I don’t object to those spaces being adapted for education, as they are in the new plan, but to claim they weren’t built for art, or that art is ill-served by their proportions, is wrong.

A view of the courtyard looking into the first floor gallery at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, shot by Ezra Stoller.
Ezra Stoller/Esto

Looking at the projects OMA has in the works, one sees a floating box a few too many times. Which is ironic, since the same could be said of Bunshaft.

It feels like there is an Oedipal unwillingness to acknowledge what Bunshaft was doing, on the part of both museum leadership and architect. They want axes and access, when Bunshaft would never have given away the store, so to speak, by offering an unmediated view through a glass box. His style was to slow the step and deflect the gaze, expertly pacing the visitor experience. He placed elements—an Isamu Noguchi red cube at Manhattan’s Marine Midland Building, also a Knox commission; the slab of stacked offices at Lever House—off-center, so that you have to pursue them.

Bunshaft personally owned many pieces by the artists with whom he collaborated, and whom Knox collected, installing them in his jewel box of a house on Georgica Pond. And similar to how a collector might display work, the courtyard he designed at the Albright-Knox was set up to look, but not (necessarily) touch. There was rolling Olmsted greenery all around, and the courtyard was for contrast. If the museum hasn’t used it well in recent years—plopping a new sculpture in the center is indeed undynamic—that feels a little like demolition by disinterest. It’s not all the architecture’s fault.

Now, this smallness and slowness may be out of fashion, but just as thoughtful museums do not jettison art no one wants to look at right now, they ought not jettison buildings. Tastes change. It is just as short-sighted to reject buildings as works of art, as it is to rush (as so many museums have) toward a notion of contemporary art as always being huge and video-intensive, and designing spaces accordingly. (What happens to all those enormous column-free galleries, I asked on Twitter, when contemporary artists turn to tiny, light-sensitive collages?) Rothko and Ruscha have never looked better than at the Albright-Knox.

The Buffalo Preservation Board sent the museum a strongly worded, step-away-from-the-courtyard letter after the public presentation, pointing out that, as a city landmark they need to sign off on any alteration to either the 1905 or 1962 buildings. Contemporary preservation practice strives for reversible alterations to historic structures. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy also has a design review board that will be looking at the proposed design’s impact on the park. Shigematsu sees the next step as a negotiation—the museum and the board have already set up an informal meeting—where the architects can present a case for keeping the auditorium and replacing the courtyard.

A rendering for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s expansion shows the gallery space that would be built above the current courtyard.
Courtesy of Albright-Knox Art Gallery

If the preservation board ends up taking a hard line, taking the courtyard off the roster of buildable area, a few of OMA’s rejected ideas seem worthy of resurrection.

My favorite, however unlikely, is burying it all. There’s plenty of grass all around the Albright-Knox, so it doesn’t really need a non-working lawn except for the view. The project’s landscape architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, can certainly make a park do more. If through-passage is so important to the museum now, open up the 1905 entrance at the top of the grand staircase down to the park. (I’m not the only one who has climbed up all of them only to tug, sadly, on the locked door.) Build the sculpture terrace-slash-rooftop and the replacement steps on the Elmwood side. Let OMA make a new version of the skylit court with fountains that once ran through the E.B. Green building and let that be your event space and east-west corridor. Neo-classical architecture suggests entrance with a strength modern architecture struggles to achieve. In this scheme, 1905 becomes the hinge, restored to its original pride of place, but with contemporary secrets inside.

Then start cutting new courtyards down into the earth. Shigematsu knows the precedents. He even showed a slide of Tadao Ando’s underground Chichu Museum on Japan’s dreamy art island, Naoshima, in his presentation. I’d also point to Gunnar Birkerts’s addition to UC San Diego’s Geisel Library. You’ve seen the concrete, cantilevered building designed by William Pereira on Instagram, but you don’t know that the ground at its base is fissured with deep, mirrored canyons, like the prismatic towers of Late Modernism in reverse, that bring light into the underground stacks.

If there has to be something new to see, sprinkle in a bit of the L-shaped plan, which used the Bunshaft building as the joint and gave the museum its first frontage on Elmwood Avenue. Perhaps a pavilion or two might pop up, a la Steven Holl Architects’s Nelson Atkins-Museum addition. Or what about a tower, if everyone loves the view from above so much? It worked at the De Young Museum, also a museum of parts, with landscape fissures, set in a larger park. Shigematsu told me, “The value of museums today is not as a monotonous experience but more like a diverse experience. Here you have a classical building, a modern building; you have a city, you have a park.” I couldn’t agree more -- so why not use landscape as an instrument and not just a view?

The AKAG also has an opportunity to engage with the future of urbanism, connecting to the imagined Arts District containing the gallery, the university, the Burchfield-Penney Museum and the Hotel Henry, recently opened in H.H. Richardson’s stately Buffalo State Asylum for the Mentally Insane, which has its own Olmsted landscape, so deep are Buffalo’s architectural cuts.

But why not get rid of the parking now? OMA’s 20,000 square foot parking garage is already marked, in the eyes of the architects and museum leadership, as a site for expansion in the autonomous vehicle future. There’s parking in the park, as well as acres of parking across Elmwood Avenue at Buffalo State, and more. The new hotel has a conference center and event spaces, as well as a farm-to-table restaurant. A restaurant opened this year on the lake in the Marcy Casino, built for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. The conceptual plans continue to house all these public functions under the museum’s roof, continuing its state as a cultural island. The greater porosity described as an ideal is as important to achieve operationally as it is physically. I know the east-west connection is meant to address this, but if you don’t get people out of their cars, it is hard to imagine them walking. The Buffalo State students mentioned as pedestrians in the public presentation walk past the museum because they like to take advantage of the free parking in the park—hardly a behavior to encourage.

Add me to the chorus of negative media about the current design for the Albright-Knox expansion, backwards-thinking or not. They don’t need Bunshaft’s courtyard to make a museum for the 21st century, and it is a mistake for museums— of all institutions—to be ruled only by the present.