Natural History Anew

An image from 1957, when the cross and square design was still legible. American Museum of Natural History

We have featured so many natural history museums in our pages over the years that one more might have been redundant; but no:

A new aerial photo shows the museum today, as a crazy quilt of buildings from many eras, with Gilder on the right. Iwan Baan

The article below, by Michael Kimmelman with photographs and video by Peter Fisher, allows us to imagine the experience of a new view on natural history in New York City.

The view at the entrance toward the monumental staircase with bleacher seats.

We are ready to be awed:

The stunning $465 million Richard Gilder Center for Science, designed like a canyon, is destined to become a colossal attraction.

When plans for it first surfaced, I wondered if the new Gilder Center at the Natural History museum might end up looking overcooked.

From the outside it’s a white-pink granite cliff with yawning windows shaped a little like the openings to caves, nestling the museum’s wonderful Romanesque Revival addition from the turn of the last century. Past the front doors, that cliff face morphs. It becomes an atrium in the guise of a towering canyon, a city block deep.

Skylights and balconies in the atrium of the new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation.

For its architects, Jeanne Gang and her team, Gilder was clearly a gamble and leap of faith, bucking today’s innocuous norms, almost begging for charges of starchitectural self-indulgence.

Now that it’s built, I love it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to equate it with the curvaceous genius of Gaudi or with Saarinen’s groovy TWA Terminal, but it’s in the family. Like them, Gilder is spectacular: a poetic, joyful, theatrical work of public architecture and a highly sophisticated flight of sculptural fantasy. New Yorkers live to grouse about new buildings. This one seems destined to be an instant heartthrob and colossal attraction.

And for a meaningful portion of its user base, the part that hasn’t yet finished middle school, I expect it will simply be, like so much else at the museum, awesome.

It’s certainly a welcome change of topic from the Theodore Roosevelt statue in front of the museum’s Central Park West entrance, which was an apt, long-overdue target for protesters after George Floyd’s murder. Since 1940, Roosevelt, sitting on his charger, chest-puffed, head high, loomed above two downcast attendants, one Native American, the other African, standing at his feet.

The museum finally got city permission to ship the sculpture off to North Dakota last year. Among other things, that cleared the air for Gilder’s opening.

Back in 2014 the museum first announced plans for the 230,000-square-foot addition, the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. At the time, City Hall pledged $15 million toward what was then Gilder’s $325 million budget. The hope was to open by 2019, the museum’s 150th anniversary. This was Natural History’s first major addition since the Rose Center for Earth and Space — Polshek Partnership’s striking update on Étienne-Louis Boullée’s famous tribute to Newton in the form of a glass box enclosing a model of the solar system — which replaced the beloved but quaint Hayden Planetarium in 2000.

Gilder would require demolishing several unlovable, back-of-house structures. They included a little-used Columbus Avenue entrance where West 79th Street dead ends into a ribbon of green called Theodore Roosevelt Park…

Read the whole article here.

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