The architecture firm Studio Gang grapples with the Earth’s basic elements. Aqua Tower in Chicago ripples like the surface of Lake Michigan. The flame-red-and-smoke-gray Rescue Company 2 in Brooklyn serves the fire department. And the Solar Carve office building along the High Line dodges and twists to keep from blocking daylight. Now, the team led by Jeanne Gang has embodied geological forces in the form of the granite-clad, cavelike Gilder Center, the High-Flintstonian west wing of the American Museum of Natural History. It’s a stony portal to a rock hall of fame and a labyrinth of fossils, a gateway to the museum’s explorations of all that’s hidden in the soil. Like the schist outcroppings that rear up a couple of blocks away in Central Park, Gang’s mixture of urban attitude and immemorial forms reminds us that even a megalopolis like ours is just a collection of boxes clinging to a very old boulder. The building is far from faultless, but it is gloriously imperfect, frankly attention-getting, and invigorating in its rejection of high gloss and generic bigness. From now on, all young first-time visitors should enter from Columbus Avenue and have a chance to utter their first of many whoas even before they’ve crossed the threshold.
On the outside, soft curves and sharp creases gap at the windows like artful drapery. During construction, the raw concrete shell had a nubbly, handmade look. Lately, it’s acquired a skin of pinkish-white granite, extracted from the same quarry that supplied the museum’s Central Park West side. Long slabs in two different widths run diagonally across the façade, which sounds straightforward enough until you realize how many subtly different puzzle pieces it took to get that billowing effect and how tricky it is to shape chunks of stone so that they seem to fold on the bias. They all had to cover a lot of miles: After being blasted out of a hillside in Massachusetts, they were milled in Germany and assembled into large panels on Long Island before being shipped to Columbus Avenue and fastened into place. The result is rugged yet flowy, like an athlete in a silk gown.
It is also assertively out of place. The new façade doesn’t align with or match the russet rusticated-stone wing next to it, which turns a corner into an exposed strip of ordinary brick wall. Gang’s insertion inches away from its neighbor, like a cool kid putting some distance between herself and the parents. Yeah, we belong to the same institution, it says, but we don’t think the same way at all. In truth, the museum has never been a consistent or coherent place. It harbors a mountain of artifacts from an array of eras in a jumble of buildings that are baffling to navigate from within. The different portions, in assorted styles, built with varying degrees of care, were welded together over time, from its Victorian Gothic core to the glass cube of the Rose Center for Earth and Space. The resulting compound grew predictably gnarled. Gang has added yet another episode to that never-ending yarn.
Like most radical works of art, the Gilder Center has plenty of forebears. A century ago, the German architect Erich Mendelsohn designed an observatory outside Berlin that was named for Albert Einstein and tried to render his mind-bending theories of the universe in buildable form. The result was an expressionist classic and a whole lineage of similarly woozy-swoopy works, such as Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, and Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp. Some 20th-century architects built into, or out of, genuine caves, achieving a synthesis of modern design and impersonal agelessness. Today, when computers make it easier to design melty forms and liquid spaces, they keep cropping up — in MAD’s Cloudscape pavilion in the Chinese coastal city of Haikou, for instance. Gang’s design shares the methodical madness and off-kilter fragility of those designs, both abstracting and emulating the process of natural change. The outside looks like a metaphorical canyon; step through the doors, and you could swear that a real torrent had once hollowed out the vast cavern.
Inside, there’s no distinction between skeleton and skin. The space was sculpted by shaping cages of rebar and mesh and spraying wet concrete onto the forms through a high-pressure nozzle. Then workers troweled on a final layer of the same stuff, leaving it deliberately rough to the touch. Seen from across the void, the surfaces look sinewy and powerful, like the hide of a giant beast. Up close, they feel gouged, pitted, and scarred. It’s as if the building were still evolving as it erodes. I’m not recommending anyone scratch at the walls, but if you did take that hands-on approach to architecture criticism, crumbs of concrete would come off in your fingers. That’s a problem if you lean against a column in a patent-leather jacket, but it gives the interior a dose of literal grittiness to go with all the nature metaphors.
Given the weighty role of granite and concrete, it’s startling to see how much the center depends on glass for its drama. The atrium’s entrance is a glassed-in arch, and the ceiling is cratered with skylights. Long, loaf-shaped windows make the facelike façade seem to be squinting through half a dozen eyes. (More straightforwardly rectangular openings at the back look out on the museum’s original 1877 building, which disappeared long ago, gradually ingurgitated into the complex’s bowels.) The effect of all this glazing — fritted with little white dots to warn birds away — is to pour daylight into the cenote-like interior. Even on the gloomy morning I visited, the atrium felt reassuringly luminous — except in recesses where romantic shadows hang around despite the lighting designers’ best efforts.
Gang aimed to meet a few contradictory goals, among them to give the place a more rational plan and smooth the movement of crowds. The atrium functions as a kind of trailhead, where multiple paths shoot off in different directions, forming loops so that visitors won’t drift into dead ends and have to retrace their steps. Anyone entering from Columbus Avenue can now pop upstairs and bear left into the dinosaur zone or make a sharp right on the ground floor, past the window crammed with crystals that teases the way toward the new Hall of Gems and Minerals. Several destinations are just a few feet away. The vivarium provides a permanent butterfly home, fitted out with lush greenery, moist warm air, and a view onto the treetops of Theodore Roosevelt Park. Of course, the prettiest creatures get the most deluxe real estate; humans have to make do with a set of classrooms that, even with big windows and high ceilings, manage to feel cramped. Their sloping walls will remain grimly bare.
You can’t raise $465 million or engage a celebrity architect for a more efficient set of hallways, and so the Gilder Center also had to feel like a building unto itself: central, hopeful, and expressive. It needed to assert its own identity and attempt to usher in the museum’s next golden age. A multistory glass shaft driven like a stake through the one side of the atrium publicizes some of the mysteries being tackled behind closed doors. A hadrosaur footprint preserved in a lump of hardened earth encourages us to recognize the wonders that can be found in mud. A giant grouper skeleton in another display case might have suggested the architecture’s bony twists and bumpy surfaces. We look right through the case into the backstage zone, the habitat of sweatshirt-clad scientists and steel shelving where the unshowy work gets done.
Among the most exhilarating of the nearby attractions is Invisible Worlds, an AI-era equivalent of the 18th-century panorama. Instead of an all-around view of Constantinople, this is a 360-degree digital artwork pulsing with projections that swirl about the continuous curve of the wall and onto the floors. The point of view zooms through the interior of a living cell and then soars outward, traversing chromosomes, waterways, and capillaries, as if on a roller-coaster ride in Wonderland. And unlike so many weak and silly immersive art experiences, this one has something specific to say: All those seen and invisible tendrils and patterns connect life at different spheres, channeling energy, resources, and information from the microscopic to the atmospheric scales. A close friend produced the show, so feel free to ignore my completely objective opinion that it provides 12 of the most psychedelically entrancing minutes you can spend in New York right now.
Spectacle in architecture is out of fashion these days. Frank Gehry’s baroque billows and Zaha Hadid’s swirls belong to a more frankly exuberant age; today, self-indulgence gets camouflaged as environmental sensitivity. At the Gilder Center, Gang has managed to merge the sculptural impulse of an artiste with the institution’s public concern for planetary health. Not without compromise, though. The design does help keep energy consumption low, but it makes me skeptical of the architects’ claim that “the project’s environmental strategies allow the building itself to exhibit the depth of care for the natural world that is central to the Museum’s mission.” You don’t get to zero by cooking up tons of concrete and schlepping mountains of rock halfway around the world and back.
What the mixture of showmanship and architectural drama really does is make the Gilder Center a theatrical and even operatic space. Maybe the most direct design antecedent here is the romantic sets that the landscape painter Josef Hoffmann designed for the first performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle in 1876. In the current run, the atrium plays the role of the Nibelungs’ cave, and the patch of park along Columbus Avenue stands in for a Nordic forest. I’d love to see Das Rheingold there, with the singers on the bridge and on the steps, the audience in the center, and the orchestra tucked out of sight in the grotto beneath the stairs. The Invisible Worlds theater, too, could double as a performance space. Right now, you can shatter digital water droplets on the floor just by stomping on them; imagine dancers recomposing the wraparound scenery in real time as they leap and twirl. The AMNH doesn’t think of itself as a performing-arts organization, but that’s what it will become when the doors open and the cast of thousands pours onstage.