By Barry Benepe
The power of architecture is revealed to us through light, sound, and passage. New York City is destined to birth one of the most outstanding examples of this power in 2020 when the American Museum of Natural History will open the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation to house one of the greatest collections of insects in the world. With nearly four million specimens, the five-level atrium will be flooded with light from a skylight, welcoming visitors through Roosevelt Park to the west. In a magical touch, the hall will open a high morning eye to the sunrise as our earth turns to the east. This will be one of the most gracious and beautiful architectural statements New York City will have generated in many years. For me, it recalls both the magnificent engravings by 18th century Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the soaring elegant wings of the TWA Terminal designed by Eero Saarinen.
Designed by the architectural team of Studio Gang Architects from Chicago and New York, the Gilder Center will stress the essential roles insects play in the diversity of life on earth. According to Ellen Futter, president of the Museum, “Insects account for 80% of our planet’s known biodiversity. Understanding them is fundamental to navigating some of our society’s most challenging issues, from maintaining a reliable food supply to coping with climate change and global epidemics.”
The plans and model were presented at the Museum’s Rose Center for Earth and Space to the press on a fine sunny morning on January 11th. Jeanne Gang, founder and principal of Studio Gang, stressed the connections that the new wing would provide to both new and existing galleries. Within the exhibit space, there will be a Butterfly Vivarium providing a year-round living exhibit and an Invisible Worlds Immersive Theater presenting “authentic science visualizations.” Rather than jutting into Roosevelt Park, it will form a smoothly sculpted and inviting light-filled court, which replaces a decrepit service alley.
Landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand have provided a richer, more inviting, and much-needed welcoming entrance to the park from the west where the weekly Greenmarket Farmers Market operates (along Columbus Avenue). The relationship of building to site is especially successful in this design.
The proposed Gilder Center received overwhelming majority support from Community Board 7 on October 5, 2016, and unanimous approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission on October 11th. Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer has also acclaimed this project, stating that, “[t]he Gilder Center is going to be a beautiful addition that complements the museum and the park, creating a light-filled gateway between the two and new opportunities for exhibits and educational programs that benefit the entire City.” (The Department of Parks and Recreation is the lead agency reviewing the Environmental Impact Statement.)
The most effective way to complement historic architecture is to build in a truly contemporary and visionary form. This “wing,” tucked into a forgotten indentation along the service core of the museum, is the perfect complement to the Vaux and Withers Richardsonian Romanesque facade along 77th Street—a bold statement we were once in danger of losing when Robert Moses had his architect, Aymar Embury, design a streamlined “Moderne” facade to replace it.
We are indeed fortunate to have this new expression of our time and future direction.