By Wendy Blake
A media tour last week of the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, which is slated to open in February 2023, at the American Museum of Natural History, began in the stunning, cavernous atrium that will open onto Columbus Avenue at West 79th Street.
The hollows and undulating surfaces of the light-filled structure were inspired by close observation of natural forms — such as caves and even melting blocks of ice. But the real model was “the flow of energy,” Wes Walker, director of the architectural firm Studio Gang’s New York office, told this reporter.
The surfaces of the new atrium are roughly textured. A museum exec said the original renderings of the project were designed to capture just the “intent and geometry” of the striking-looking structure. The surface as it is enhances the effect of the atrium as a cave or canyon.
The effect was created by using “shotcrete,” which is sprayed liquid concrete. The technique, according to Studio Gang, is designed to provide a “continuous interior without material seams or joints.”
One of the tour’s highlights was “Invisible Worlds,” which gives visitors a 360-degree, immersive experience of phenomena too microscopic or complex to experience otherwise. Graphic designer Marc Tamschick said the one-of-a-kind installation — created through close collaboration between artists (including his eponymous Berlin firm) and scientists — aims to give visitors an “emotional experience” of the unseen: that covers everything from the genome and the workings of the brain to the neuronal network of a dragonfly and interactions between ecosystems.
Highly sophisticated data visualization is at work behind the scenes: data generated from LIDAR scans of the brain, showing its trillions of connections, and information from NASA are employed to create the experience, in which projectors cast 360-degree images on the walls and floor of a bowl-shaped room the size of a hockey rink. The audio is not yet installed, but Vivian Trakinski, the director of science visualization at the AMNH, promises an impressive soundscape. Audio will come through perforations in the walls and will include sounds such as pulsing blood or the calls of whales. She says there will be interactive features — visitors will be able to, for example, fire neurons in the brain — to “remind us we are actors in the history.”
An insectarium will focus on those tiny creatures with whom we share the planet, and whose existence is vital to our own lives. “Many people don’t like insects,” said a museum executive. “We want to change that. We need a global mindshift. Maybe you’ll leave here and think twice before stepping on them.” The insectarium will host colonies of live insects, including leaf-cutter ants in a transparent overhead skybridge (they need to be fed new leaves — without pesticides — every day). Bees will be a focus as well — one scientist said bee life mirrors the social life of New York City. The insectarium will be chockablock with interactive displays, and there will be an area for New York insects (including a gallery literally vibrating with the sounds of Central Park bugs). An entomologist says research at the museum is increasingly shifting from the “mammoth” to the minuscule.
A new library, which has a large tree-like column in the center, branching out at the top, will be available for researchers — as well as the public. A permanent vivarium will feature 80 species of free-flying butterflies, and a vertical collections facility will put four million specimens on display (12% of the museum’s entire collection).
Eighteen new classrooms will focus on nature education. The museum has programs for children as young as two, through Head Start, and relationships with middle schools and high schools throughout the city. One zone will concentrate on college and career readiness, and the museum hopes one day to welcome adult learners. Ellen Futter, who is stepping down in March 2023 after nearly 30 years as the museum’s president, says the goal of the center is to “inspire trust in science”—something sorely needed in these times—and harness people’s “instinct and will to steward and protect the natural environment.”
The Gilder Center was designed to unite the sprawling AMNH campus, allowing visitors to move easily from one building to another, whereas before the layout was confusing and visitors wandering through the halls were often met by dead-ends.
The project includes a redesign of the adjacent portion of Theodore Roosevelt Park, with new seating, “revitalized” plantings and canopy trees, and a “welcoming” park entrance from Columbus Avenue.