We visit the construction site of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum
When I was growing up in Buffalo, New York, it was in a decades-long post-industrial crisis, and known mostly for chicken wings, act of God blizzards, and a beloved and often heartbreaking football team. . But it had a glorious past as one of America’s most prosperous cities, and an exceptional legacy of art and architecture, including the famous Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Today, Buffalo is experiencing a long-awaited renaissance, as well as a stunning overhaul of this gem of a cultural institution.
The sixth oldest museum in the United States, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery was established in 1862 as the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy to showcase the art of its day. Architect Edward Brodhead Green designed his first permanent building, a Greek Revival structure inaugurated in 1905, on the edge of Delaware Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Several visionaries contributed to the greatness of the museum, including Anson Conger Goodyear, who pushed for the 1926 acquisition of Picasso’s work. The toilet (his nudity temporarily cost him his place on the set). In 1939, Goodyear created the Contemporary Art Room. “It became a boost for the original DNA of ‘we live with our times,’ notes current director Janne Sirén, who was poached from the Helsinki Art Museum in 2013. “Or, as the saying goes, “when the paint is still wet”.’ From 1938, under Seymour H Knox Jr and Gordon M Smith, the museum built up its collections with greed and intelligence, acquiring masterpieces by Matisse, Pollock, Rothko, Bacon, de Kooning and Warhol, and amassing l one of the best in the world. collections of abstract expressionism, pop art and minimalism.
Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann of Studio Other Spaces designed a glass and steel canopy installation for the courtyard of the 1962 extension. This new public plaza will provide free public access. Photography: Gregory Halpern
To display its acquisitions, the museum commissioned Buffalo native Gordon Bunshaft to design a sleek, modernist glass box with an auditorium in 1962. Renamed the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (after two philanthropists who generously donated to the institution), the museum has tripled its collection. between 1960 and 2000, again overwhelming space. (At one time, Sirén had a Cézanne and a Monet hanging in his office.) By the turn of the century, Bunshaft’s addition no longer met conservation standards or ADA regulations. The art itself was changing, getting bigger. The Albright-Knox even lacked a loading dock – Siren says a crane would hoist larger works of art to an opening in the side of the building: ‘There are pictures of Pollocks literally flying through the air , with four art handlers holding the ropes for them to string ‘don’t throw away too much!’
In 2012, the museum commissioned Snøhetta to draw up a master plan for a new addition. But when Siren was hired, he took a step back. Buffalo has a poverty rate of almost 30% and he wanted to involve the local community in the process. “A lot of people enjoy the Albright-Knox like a castle on the hill, like, ‘this isn’t my museum,’” he says. “Museums can be many things, but they must be of and for the community.” He held nine months of town hall meetings and found people supported an expansion as long as it didn’t encroach on the park. During the architectural competition, he told the five finalists: “We will ask you to show your design strength, but we are probably not going to build what you propose, because we are looking for partners.” The winner was OMA with Shohei Shigematsu of the New York office as lead partner, for a proposal to build an extension on Bunshaft Yard, and the humility to throw it away.
A curved staircase will lead visitors from the entrance hall to the galleries and the observation deck. Photography: Gregory Halpern
Instead, the new addition is a stand-alone building located where a parking lot once stood. Last summer, as I was driving down the Scajaquada Highway to visit the site, the three-story geometric building suddenly appeared to my left. Beyond, the 1905 building stood like a proud parent, tethered by the umbilical cord of a curving bridge. Each floor of the new addition will offer between 7,000 and 9,500 square feet of exhibition space, with the galleries getting smaller and less defined as you go up. The ground floor features a 38-foot-tall space, while the third floor contains a massive 7,530 square foot gallery with only two permanent support columns.
On the second floor, a sculpture terrace will wrap around the building between the exterior walls and a clear glass curtain wall, offering 360-degree views. Walking on it, I saw Olmsted-era trees, a Jaume Plensa sculpture temporarily wrapped in blue plastic on the lawn, the copper roof crest of the 1905 building, and a new piece of architectural art by Studio Other Spaces reflected in the dark glass of the 1962 building.
Shigematsu says the addition responds to the role of 21st century museums as engines of community building through art: “Our goal was to present these efforts as a sign of openness, having a space where people can improvise, and activities visible from the outside – not on a closed, authoritarian façade. He explains that they arrived at the form by creating the heart of the building, the galleries on the ground floor, like a plus sign, opening the angles to transparency. “If you occupied the ground floor with the galleries, it would become another fortress,” he says.
The winding bridge, soon enclosed in glass walls, skirts a grove of century-old oak trees to connect the new structure to the 1905 building. Photography: Gregory Halpern
The “interstitial” space on the second floor behind the glass wall can be used for events. Art that is not sensitive to sunlight can be hung on the gallery’s exterior walls, visible from the street or park below. “I think this walking space will be amazing,” says Shigematsu. “You can have the art on one side and the park on the other, and that really embodies the potential of the site and the collection.”
The courtyard of the 1962 building, once largely inaccessible to visitors, will now be the town square, the heart of the museum’s community engagement program and free to access. Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann of Studio Other Spaces designed site-specific artwork to cover it. Called common sky, it looks like a huge tree of glass and steel. “There’s an element of social consciousness,” Eliasson explains, “and bringing in the outdoors and time, and all of that in a kaleidoscopic way.” At the entrance to the underground car park, visitors will discover another commissioned work of art, a digitally designed tapestry by Swedish artist Miriam Bäckström.
The existing 1905 gallery building. Photography: Gregory Halpern
The museum is set to reopen in the spring of 2023 with a show showcasing the permanent collection and a new name, the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. The “G” stands for Jeffrey Gundlach, a Buffalo native and financier who ended up donating $65 million on a budget of around $190 million. The scale of the project wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, says Siren: “It was a Buffalo Bills game, where we move the ball down the field one yard at a time,” he laughs. “Multiple hits.” §