The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) opened its doors in 1877 on a bare stretch just in front of Central Park in Manhattan and has since become a campus of 15 buildings of various typologies and styles. The last entrance, designed by Studio Gang with Davis Brody Bond, stands out for its integration, thanks to a striking but respectful Milford pink granite facade on a corrugated shotcrete base. The type of stone corresponds to that of the exterior of the main wing.
The Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation aims to strengthen the museum’s scientific and research programs while improving circulation between its many wings. But on the Upper West Side, where historic preservation has a militant side, aesthetics cannot be ignored. According to Weston Walker, partner and director of design at Studio Gang, the design team embraced the ever-changing nature of the AMNH to win the Monuments Conservation Commission, which reviewed the project.
“One of the things that became clear in the review process is that the museum is not architecturally or historically fixed,” Walker told AN, “but rather an evolving collection of interconnected buildings built and modified over time—a kind of microcosm of the evolution of New York City’s architectural heritage.”
Located along the western perimeter of the campus, the 230,000-square-foot project rests on a solid concrete foundation that once anchored the museum’s dynamo-populated power plant. Reusing the existing foundation saves time and money, although with a budget of million, this does not seem to be a big concern. Support and justification were applied as needed to stabilize adjacent structures.
The design of the Gang Studio provided for a windswept outcrop with a four-story atrium crossed by stone bridges. To obtain the plastic shape of the building, the architects chose to use structural shotcrete, which (as the name suggests) consists of projecting concrete onto internal reinforcement support at high speed. Compared to the pre-planned method of pouring concrete, the process of “shooting” shotcrete seems almost improvised, involving an assortment of tools such as rods and trowels. Almost. At the gilding center, the thickness of the shotcrete varies from 4 to 24 inches to adapt to complex geometries. The exact calculations were carried out by the manufacturer Arup.
Walker explained that “much of the curvature of the building’s shape is intended to enhance the action of the structure’s arc—these curves help shift gravity loads from horizontal to vertical. It is a centuries-old structural geometry that we could interpret with a contemporary material application. Studio Gang built several models to “better understand the type of shapes and surface qualities that we could achieve, and to learn more about the process of applying shotcrete from experienced craftsmen so that we could properly design the building as part of this unique process.”
The installation of the facade will begin in a few weeks. The pink granite blocks seen in the renderings will first be cut and assembled in the form of “mega panels”, a technique that will speed up transportation and installation. (The facade and island manufacturers Hofmann, together with the facade engineers from Buro Happold, will supervise the process.) The oversized panels, with their different widths and layers, have a grain reminiscent of a geological layer, as well as the weathered stone masonry of adjacent structures.
The semicircular windows carved into the granite facade maintain a minimum window/wall ratio, an important element of the project strategy to obtain LEED Gold certification. The glass wall above the entrance is shaded by a building button, while a large skylight will illuminate the building’s atrium and the many adjacent bridges and corridors.
The Gilder Center is scheduled to open its doors this winter and, according to Jeanne Gang, founder, and partner of Studio Gang, “the architecture plans to ignite the spirit of discovery and offer an invitation to exploration.”An appropriate aspiration for this age-old institution.