One of Gordon Bunshaft's finest is today's claass HAUS.
In 1956, the director of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (BFAA) called for the immediate renovation and expansion of the organization's Albright Gallery, a classical Beaux Arts pavilion (1900-1905) situated along Frederick Law Olmsted's Delaware Park. Having outgrown the Edward B. Green-designed building, the BFAA looked to Paul Schweikher, chairman of Yale’s School of Architecture, to design an extensive addition using the Modernist language of the mid-twentieth century. But Schweikher's plan, a long glass box flanking the building’s grand semi-circular portico, was less than well received, and following a wave of negative publicity, the board abandoned the design, looking instead to the possibility of a separate addition.
Enter one of Buffalo’s most beloved sons- Gordon Bunshaft.
Born in Buffalo, Gordon Bunshaft, the Pritzker Prize-winning partner and lead designer for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), willingly returned to his hometown to create a new plan for the city's popular institution. True to his Modernist convictions, Bunshaft designed a sleek, rectangular glass box with a flat roof and free plan that functions as a minimal counterpoint to the original Beaux Arts building. Standing apart from but paying homage to its classical neighbor, the design for the addition consists of a low, white stone plinth supporting a black glass auditorium, the Beaux Arts colonnade reflected in its mirrorlike skin. Bunshaft's design connects to the original gallery via two enclosed corridors; an arrangement that forms an elegant open courtyard serving as a place of transition and pause between the two stylistically opposed spaces. In Bunshaft's capable hands, the stark glass cube successfully compliments its classical predecessor, matching the older building's scale and refinement in a delicate harmony. A skillful balance of black and white, modern and classical, new and old, the Albright-Knox campus represents shifting architectural attitudes and the evolving expectations of a museum's function.
Opened to the public in late January 1962, the rebranded Albright-Knox Gallery attracted nearly 7,000 visitors on the new facility's inaugural day. Housing 30,000 square feet (including an auditorium, restaurant, storage rooms, offices, and visitor facilities), critics hailed the Bunshaft design a masterpiece of Modernism. Architect Kenzo Tange (who had recently completed the Hiroshima Peace Center) called the Bunshaft addition, “the most beautiful building in the world for an art museum,” and even today, the gallery's carefully crafted elastic spaces and quiet Miesian planes never seem to detract from the impressive collection of contemporary and modern art. Bunshaft’s addition is a quiet one, a glass box meant to be unobtrusive in its unapologetic devotion to Modernism.
Hailed as one of the architect’s most thoughtful designs, the clear geometry and material refinement of Bunshaft’s Albright-Knox addition is a triumph of "Glass Box Modernism". Carefully conceived, the elegant structure is a near perfect reflection of the museum's twentieth-century purpose and a significant Buffalo landmark (the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971). But last summer, in yet another plea for more space, the BFAA looked to expand the Albright-Knox campus, putting Bunshaft's addition in the crosshairs of changing architectural trends and institutional purpose.
In June of 2017, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) (the firm of Rem Koolhaas) unveiled plans to demolish part of Bunshaft’s addition in an effort to rearrange and enlarge the existing Albright-Knox footprint. Intended to provide new state-of-the-art facilities, OMA’s conceptual design replaces Bunshaft’s galleries and courtyard with a large glass-enclosed space, filling the tranquil gap between the two buildings with a transparent bridge (you can read more about the plans here). But not unlike Paul Schweikher's design sixty years earlier, OMA's proposed changes to the Bunshaft landmark were met with much opposition (the Buffalo Preservation Board sent a strongly worded letter to the BFAA after the public presentation), forcing the board to rethink the project and to reexamine alternatives. (Read the BFAA's latest statement here.) So for now, the preservation community waits. And the battle for Gordon Bunshaft's Buffalo legacy begins.
Oh, and Happy Valentine's Day!
Image at the top:
Sculpture at the Albright-Knox Gallery, 1962. Photograph by David Schalliol, Society of Architectural Historians via Creative Commons 2.0.
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