Standing in the futuristic and cavernous Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation at the American Museum of Natural History can be an experience in itself — and that was without any of the exhibitions installed yet.
During the recent media preview and walk-through — hardhats required — many attendees instinctively gazed skyward to the light-filled cavities that punctuate part of the 230,000-square-foot space. Perhaps no one is anticipating the Feb. 17 public opening more than Jeanne Gang, who masterminded what will be a new modernistic landmark — and undoubtedly a destination — for New York City.
The Studio Gang team hasn’t just created an architectural spectacle, but also a gateway to the museum’s buildings and new ideas. Nearly 4 million specimens — about 12 percent of the museum’s collection — will be showcased in the Gilder Center, which has a projected budget of $431 million. Visitors will find 80 species of free-flying butterflies in the Davis Family Butterfly Vivarium. The non-squeamish will be drawn to the 5,000-square-foot Susan and Peter J. Solomon Family Insectarium, where live and pinned insects will be on view along with digital exhibits. Honeybees will hover in a hive overhead and leafcutter ants will be busying themselves under a transparent skybridge in what is being billed as “one of the world’s largest leaf-cutter ant displays.”
Wandering into an area that is about the size of a hockey rink with 23-foot walls, museumgoers will eye the digitally driven “Invisible Worlds” — colorful projections suggesting infinity. The 12-minute immersive experience is meant to reflect how all life is interconnected, whether that be DNA, ecological or communicative. The Berlin-based Tamschick Media+Space and the Seville-based Boris Micka Associates aligned with data visualization specialists and scientists from the museum and beyond to design “Invisible Worlds.”
But back to the building — the Gilder Center is rooted in fluidity and connectivity, as it offers 30 connections to 10 existing buildings at the Natural History Museum. Striving to recoup pre-pandemic annual attendance levels of 5 million visitors, the museum will welcome many through the Griffin Atrium, which opens onto Theodore Roosevelt Park. They will have plenty of ground to cover, as the museum’s property spans four city blocks from Columbus Avenue to Central Park West.
In an interview, Gang spoke of the patience that she knew ahead of time would be required “to push through little by little to get through it step-by-step. It’s not just on some site out in the middle of nowhere. This is New York City with an existing building and so many constraints with the site, and trying to protect the [museum’s] park. We just knew it would take a really long time.”
AMNH president Ellen Futter knew the drill, having overseen the development of the $210 million seven-level Rose Center for Earth and Space. “She had a lot of confidence that we could get this done,” says Gang of Futter, who plans to end her 30-year tenure after the Gilder Center’s opening.
Ten years later, they can see the finish line for the project. More than anything, though, Gang hopes that the building will “make you feel something, [have] a sense of wonder and want to explore. It taps into the human need for curiosity and makes you think, ‘I want to go in there and walk around the corner.’ The architecture sets that up and that’s what we want the behavior to be here. We want people with kids, adults, teachers and everyone to find something new and just feel like it’s theirs to explore.”
Rather than create “some shiny object out in the park,” Gang set out to give visitors access to the aforementioned 30 connections. While non-architects might approach making a building as just that — constructing a physical structure — Gang envisioned facilitating the movement throughout the space. However ethereal that might sound, Gang explains, “It’s an internally driven design. It is like a tool or an instrument that allows you to see all of these different parts of the museum that were formerly dead ends. You would go to the end of a hall and turn around.”
Conversely, Studio Gang has created “this kind of porosity really allows you to make all of these connections both intellectually and physically,” Gang says.
As for whether the project’s ethos is meant to help many shake the inwardness they may have adapted to during the pandemic, Gang says, “Architecture is about getting people out from behind their screens, and [having them] go out to actually feel things. That’s something that only a physical space can actually do. I always think that architecture sets up certain behaviors whether you have communications or solitary behavior. This is meant to spark curiosity, get people to talk about what they’re seeing and create social behavior. Ultimately, the real goal of it is to get people to fall in love with nature again and want to save nature and understand it. It is what we need the most right now. That and we need dialogue to engage people.”
As much as she revels in the construction phase of projects, this isn’t the only one that is underway. Studio Gang’s work for the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock is slated for a spring opening. The capital campaign for the project has raised more than $150 million to date – well beyond theinitial goal of $128 million. A combination of renovations and new construction, it was imagined in part as a stem that blossoms north and south — a new phase of natural history if you will.