By Sophie Schnell
Despite its seamless-looking exterior, the Museum of Natural History currently consists of 26 interconnecting buildings. That number is expected to grow to 27 by late 2019 or 2020 as the museum embarks on a process to construct a new building, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation.
Award-winning architect Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang Architects, was selected to spearhead the project. The West Side Rag recently sat down with Gang for an exclusive interview in which she discussed her preliminary plans for the project.
A MacArthur Fellow, Gang (pictured at right) founded her New York and Chicago based firm in 1997 and has since become a rising figure in the fields of urban design and architecture. Gang is a self-described “big nature lover,” a quality reflected in her work. Gang’s designs play with the intersection of nature, technology, and architecture. Her pavilion at the Lincoln Park Zoo was inspired by a tortoise shell, the ceiling of the Starlight Theater in Illinois opens to the sky in a flower-like motion, and the façade of the aqua tower in Chicago resembles undulating waves. Although Gang and her creative team are just embarking on the design for the museum’s expansion, it will undoubtedly incorporate natural elements.
Gang is committed to minimizing the building’s energy use as much as possible. Regardless of the design, the building will achieve at least a silver LEED certification, she said. She mentions ideas for green initiatives she is considering, like studying sun patterns to utilize natural light and reusable energy, and incorporating “outdoor space literally on the building.” In thinking about what challenges the project will present, Gang highlights the vast array of materials and styles already at play in the existing structures. “There are 26 different buildings and they are all different styles and of different times,” she explains. “A big task will be figuring out how our building will somehow connect but also be of our own time.”
In discussing the design, Gang emphasizes that establishing symbiosis between the building and the Theodore Roosevelt Park is a priority. “One of the most important things is how the building connects to the park,” Gang states, “this building will be in a green space that is really treasured.” According to Gang and her team at the museum, the park is an influential factor in the preliminary design process. “Really a big part right now of what we are studying is how people use the park,” she explains.
Dan Slippen, vice president of government relations at the museum, expanded on this idea. “The park, although it ranges from 77th to 81st and CPW to Columbus, is used in a different way in every area.” In reference to the region facing Columbus, Slippen describes its primary use as a place “to stroll, to sit and have coffee, to talk, to convene.” The museum is also conducting research to gauge community response to the expansion. “We’ve been working and trying over the past six months or so not only to assess and hear about the current uses [of the park] but to learn what potential uses those in the community desire,” says Slippen. To determine said desires, the museum has been collecting feedback from the neighborhood. “We’re meeting with formalized organizations, we have had numerous meetings with elected officials, and we are meeting with individuals,” Slippen explains. “It’s important that we aren’t just looking at it from our own lens.”
The museum’s plan to expand into Theodore Roosevelt Park has been met with mixed feedback. While some are excited for the center and its educational features, many members of the Upper West Side community are against any reduction of the precious green space. When asked to address this opposition, Gang said, “I’ve gotten to know the urgency of this museum and the need to provide space for education, science, a part of the museum which nobody normally sees, and the expanding collection and I think the idea is that we can make the green space even more usable and more beautiful and emphasize the qualities that would be a positive, beneficial addition. I think it’s really a balance between the building, the institution as a whole, and the beautiful park that it’s sitting in. I don’t have reservations but I think it’s got to be done very carefully.”
Gang and her team at the museum hope to receive public input as they continue in the design and construction process. “We have a website (https://www.amnh.org/about-us/gilder-center-for-science-education-and-innovation) where you can go and you can ask questions and request to meet, we are happy to meet with anybody,” says Slippen. “The dialogue is not over, the dialogue continues.”
Photo via Studio Gang Architects.