May 4, 2023
The Richard Gilder Center Opens at the American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has developed over the years in a frenzied, nonsensical fashion, almost as if its leaders kept realizing just how vast a subject “natural history” really is and appending buildings in an attempt to contain it all. This has been mostly an effort in futility. The natural world is far bigger and stranger than we can imagine, and our sense of what we don’t know grows far faster than our collective collection of hard and fast facts. The history of the AMNH is a veritable carnival of our infinitesimal knowledge, of the weaknesses of anthropocentric historicization, and, as of recently, of efforts to correct for those foibles. The dioramas depicting the Dutch arriving on Lenape land now bear disclaimers about the violence of colonization. The statue of a Native American man and an African American man servilely flanking Teddy Roosevelt on a horse has been shipped off to North Dakota. We are aware now, these changes seem to suggest, of our past mistakes. We know the stories we have told were not the truth. We know our place.
Perhaps ironically, certainly frighteningly, the unmasking of major institutions as perpetuators of injustice—as well as the subsequent questioning of authority that unmasking provoked—have come hand in hand with a widespread skepticism about the nature of truth itself. The internet is equally strewn with prompts to “do your own research” as it is of reminders to “believe in science,” as though it was Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. There is no consensus. Within this fraught cultural landscape and in an attempt to expand its efforts in science education and popularization, the AMNH commissioned a new wing: the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. Studio Gang designed it.
Resolving the Museum’s Circulation Problem
In addition to such lofty goals as restoring faith in the scientific method, the brief for the Gilder Center also contained more pedestrian points. The new wing had to provide a new entrance to the museum. It had to create new points of connection between itself and the existing buildings, resolving the museum’s ages-old dead-ends problem. It had to work with the existing patterns of circulation on the site, particularly for loading and unloading artifacts and displays. It also had to provide spaces for learning and research to fulfill the “Education and Innovation” part of its name.
On these fronts, it succeeds, mildly. The entrance on Columbus Avenue, on axis with 79th street, promises to provide a viewing place for Manhattanhenge, those two days a year when sunrise and sunset align with the city’s grid. There are certainly new connections (33, to be exact) between the Gilder Center and its neighbors to the east and south, but the moments of passage are underwhelming, tucked between circulation elements or into dark corners. Loading and unloading still takes place as it did before, right below the Gilder Center’s southern flank. The building also houses new classrooms, a “collections core” that puts artifacts used by scientists on display, a butterfly vivarium, and a research library.
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Capturing Inspiration from the Natural World
The column that interrupts this last space, Jeanne Gang tells me, “Goes all the way down to the bedrock.” It stands in contrast to the building’s four-story atrium, whose showy shotcrete curves provide all the structure the space needs to hold itself up, obviating the need for columns. Thin acoustic fins splay out from where the column meets the ceiling plane, calling to mind the underside of a mushroom cap.
The organic mimicry doesn’t end there. Gang says the designers looked at natural rock formations to derive the shape of the building in an attempt to capture the wonder inspired by the natural world. As a result, the outside of the building reads as a sort of parametric ice palace. Heavily mullioned fritted glass spans between stretches of the palest-of-pale pink granite panels, each course angled to emphasize the bulging horizontal bands of the building’s massing. The inside, in turn, is a facsimile of a fictional rock formation, the inside of a canyon that doesn’t exist. While certain photos make the curved openings look almost cavernous, the aggregate pocking the rough-finished concrete surface betrays their small scale—as do people’s heads when they poke up above the parapets, incongruously sized in the way that giraffes in zoos are to their simulated habitats.
Can Architecture Really Restore Our Faith in Science?
It’s possible—probable, even—that the Gilder Center was simply tasked with too much. How is one building supposed to restore the heavily eroded conviction that science is a trustworthy process through which we can arrive at conclusive knowledge about the world? Gang and co. waged their bets on shock and awe.
But the problem with making architecture that looks like a canyon, Grand or otherwise, is that a canyon was made by forces so incredibly large that they are unfathomable. Canyons look the way they do not because nature is after a certain aesthetic outcome but because it simply cannot help itself. Canyons inspire wonder because when we look at them, we are confronted with the immense power of forces outside of our control. We are faced with the fact that air and water, elements through which we move with ease every day, can give a thousand-foot-tall monolith of stone a whole new face if given billions of years to do their work. The Gilder Center was not made by air and water over the course of billions of years. It was made by people in less than ten.
Nature is amazing. Science—that is, our endeavor to understand nature—is, too, in its insistence on getting to the truth of something while conscious of the fact that it will only ever scratch the surface. The AMNH needed a building that would let science and nature dazzle on their own, not try to outperform them. The Gilder Center’s form is an effort at awe unfortunately akin to the hubristic history from which the museum seems so eager to distance itself.
We stand at the top of canyons because we want to see geologic history embodied and because we want to feel our own infinitely small place in that history. We look down and come as close as we ever will to seeing eternity. Standing at the top level of the Gilder Center’s atrium, I saw a blank plaster wall.
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