September 26, 2022

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We Bring Good Things to Life

Studio Gang’s Gilder Center undulates with elegant shotcrete and granite

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) opened in 1877 on a barren stretch just opposite Manhattan’s Central Park and has since grown into a 15-building campus of divergent typologies and styles. The latest entry, designed by Studio Gang with Davis Brody Bond, stands out by fitting in, thanks to an eye-catching, yet reverential Milford pink granite facade on an undulating shotcrete base. The stone variety matches that on the exterior of the main wing.

The Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation is meant to bolster the museum’s science and research programs while improving circulation among its many wings. But on the Upper West Side, where historical preservation has a militant edge, aesthetics can’t be ignored. According to Weston Walker, a partner and design principal at Studio Gang, the design team embraced AMNH’s ever-changing nature to win over the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which reviewed the project.

“One of the things that became clear in the review process is that the museum is not architecturally or historically fixed,” Walker told AN, “but rather an evolving collection of interconnected buildings constructed and changed over time—a kind of microcosm of the evolution of New York City’s architectural heritage.”

construction photo of a skylight
Workers installing a large skylight. (Timothy Schenck/Courtesy American Museum of Natural History)

Located along the campus’s western perimeter, the 230,000-square-foot project rests on a robust concrete foundation that once anchored the museum’s dynamo-populated power plant. Reusing the existing foundation saved both time and money, though with a budget of $431 million, that wouldn’t seem to have been a major concern. Shoring and underpinning were applied as needed to stabilize the adjacent structures.

Studio Gang’s design called for a windswept outcrop with a four-story atrium crisscrossed by stony bridges. To achieve the building’s plastic form, the architects elected to use structural shotcrete, which (as the name suggests) involves projecting concrete at a high velocity onto internal rebar support. Compared with the preplanned method of casting concrete, the process for “shooting” shotcrete feels almost improvisatory, involving an assortment of tools such as rods and trowels. Almost. At the Gilder Center, the shotcrete ranges in thickness from 4 to 24 inches to accommodate the complex geometries. The exact calculations were carried out by structural engineer Arup.

construction photo of a large theater space
The center’s 360-degree Invisible Worlds Theater under construction. (Timothy Schenck/ Courtesy the American Museum of Natural History)

Walker explained that “a lot of the curvature in the building’s form is enhancing the structure’s arching action—those curves help move gravity loads from horizontal to vertical. It’s an age-old structural geometry that we were able to interpret with a contemporary material application.” Studio Gang erected several mock-ups to “better understand what kind of forms and surface qualities we could achieve, and to learn about the process of applying the shotcrete from the skilled tradespeople so that we could properly design the building within the framework of this unique process.”

The facade installation is set to begin in a few weeks’ time. The pink granite blocks seen in renderings will be cut and assembled first as “mega panels,” a technique that will speed along transportation and installation. (Hofmann Facades and Island Exterior Fabricators, acting in coordination with facade engineers from Buro Happold, will oversee the process.) The outsized panels, with their varying widths and courses, have a grain recalling a geological stratum, as well as the weathered stone masonry of the adjacent structures.

rendering of a soaring new atrium space at the american museum of natural history
A rendering of the four-story atrium (Neoscape, Inc./Courtesy American Museum of Natural History)
exterior rendering of a granite-clad educational building
What the same elevation will look like with the Milford pink granite cladding (Neoscape, Inc./Courtesy American Museum of Natural History)

Semicircular windows cut into the granite-decked facade maintain a minimal window- to-wall ratio, a key part of the project’s strategy to reach LEED Gold certification. The glazed wall above the entry is shaded by a building nub, while a large skylight will pour light into the building’s atrium and its many adjoining bridges and corridors.

The Gilder Center is scheduled to open this winter, and according to Studio Gang founding principal and partner Jeanne Gang, “The architecture intends to kindle the spirit of discovery and offer an invitation to explore.” A fitting aspiration for this time-honored institution.

Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation
Architect: Studio Gang
Executive architect: Davis Brody Bond
Location: Manhattan

Construction manager: AECOM Tishman Construction Corporation
Structural engineer: Arup
Facade engineer: Buro Happold Engineering
Facade consultants: Hofmann Facades, Island Exterior Fabricators
Shotcrete subcontractor: COST