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Preliminary plans for Albright-Knox Gallery expansion cause for concern

July 19, 2017

The Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY, is the rare institution to have an exceptional Beaux-Arts main building and an equally exceptional Modern addition. The former was designed by local architect E.B. Green and completed in 1905. The latter was by another homegrown talent, Gordon Bunshaft, in 1962. The project was near and dear to art-loving Bunshaft, who reportedly spent an inordinate amount of energy on its design, which consists of a dark, starkly Modern two-story auditorium volume connected to the 1905 building by a low, enclosed courtyard that functions as the museum’s entrance and includes gallery spaces. The wing is widely admired for being reverential to its neo-Classical neighbor without sacrificing Modernism’s principles. However, Bunshaft’s solution was realized only after a previous proposal by another architect was dropped following a public outcry.

The museum’s leadership appears to be repeating history. In late June the NYC-based architecture firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) released conceptual drawings for inserting a floating volume between Bunshaft’s auditorium and Green’s building, eradicating Bunshaft’s courtyard and galleries. Reaction has been swift. Local preservationists, academics, architecture blogs, and local news outlets have raised alarm about the heavy-handed approach and question the need for it. Architect Mark Hogan described the expansion for Curbed as “a bloated, ill-defined, glass-walled lobby with gallery space on top.” Even Buffalo’s preservation board, which traditionally refrains from making public statements on preliminary proposals, felt compelled to speak out: “The concept appears to require the destruction and radical alteration of character-defining elements of the 1962 Bunshaft building (gallery spaces and courtyard) and to impact viewsheds of the original Green building and Olmsted landscape.” (Any changes to the exterior of the building would need their approval in addition to that of the State Historic Preservation Office, which has oversight when a project is receiving public funds.)

In response, Albright-Knox Gallery director Janne Sirén insists the preliminary sketches are just that and the outcry is premature. When contacted by a local newspaper he further stated, “We are also not in the business of collecting buildings. We are an art museum and our service is to our public and to the artworks in our custody. The buildings are here to serve us, and not us as the staff, but the public and the art. That is our foremost responsibility. The buildings are the utilitarian tools, in some respect, that allow us to accomplish our mission.”

DOCOMOMO NY/Tri-State has submitted a letter to the museum making clear our concern for the current direction of the project and requesting they reconsider their approach. We will be tracking the project closely.

There has been a flurry of news coverage on this development. The following links provide a good overview of the proposal and its context:

Alexandra Lange, “OMA’s plan for the Albright-Knox chases the contemporary to the detriment of its past, but there are stealth alternatives,” July 19, 2017

“Will Preservationists again change the course of Albright-Knox expansion?” Buffalo News: July 8, 2017

“A Modernist Masterpiece, Under Fire in Buffalo,” July 7, 2017

“OMA’s Albright-Knox proposal undoes the work of Buffalo’s most famous architect,” June 27, 2017

Top: Photo by Tom Loonan, courtesy Albright-Knox Gallery; middle: Bunshaft's courtyard in 1962, courtesy The Buffalo News; bottom: OMA's conceptual proposal for expansion