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A conversation about Albright-Knox Art Gallery expansion plans

Photo courtesy of the Albright-Knox


SOME FACTS:  Delaware Park was designed and developed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux around 1876. In 1905, E. B. Green designed the neoclassical Albright Art Gallery building on Delaware Park land (the museum was founded in 1862 and had been moving through temporary locations). In 1962, a modern addition designed by Gordon Bunshaft was added, and the museum’s name was changed to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (AKAG).


In 2001, the AKAG established a goal of expanding the museum again, which promptly went on the back burner with the 2008 recession. With the arrival of current director, Janne Sirén, in 2014, a series of public meetings were initiated to gather input from the public on the museum’s future. The search for an architect began in 2015, and the internationally renowned OMA firm was selected. Project architect Shohei Shigematsu studied the history of the museum and grounds and utilized public input to inform his approach. Last June, a concept design was revealed, which features a glass atrium spanning the space between the 1905 building and the “black box” part of the 1962 addition. The connecting Bunshaft hallway galleries and sculpture courtyard would be eliminated.


Reaction from preservationists and architects was largely negative. The blowback included a letter from Buffalo’s Preservation Board reminding the museum of the building’s protected landmark status. Shohei Shigematsu stated that the concept drawings do not fully reflect the plan. Revised drawings will be released around the time this article is in print.


THE PARTICIPANTS: For this roundtable, we initially contacted a number of men and women, including architects, preservationists, and critics. Most declined to comment, including some who had previously been vocal. Buffalo’s Preservation Board agreed that its members would have no further comment. The AKAG is waiting for the revised plan before commenting further.


Three distinguished individuals did join this conversation.




David Steele is an award-winning architect, born in Buffalo, but now working in Chicago. He writes frequently on architecture, preservation, and urbanism and has published a book on Buffalo architecture, Buffalo: Architecture in the American Forgotten Land.


Photo by kc kratt


Michael Tunkey is an architect and a principal at CannonDesign, a global design firm founded in Buffalo. He is a lifelong member of the Albright-Knox and currently serves on the Public Art Committee.




Richard Huntington is an award-winning art critic and artist. He has written for ARTnews, Art New England, and High Performance magazine. He is Critic Emeritus at the Buffalo News, from which he retired as arts writer in 2007.


OMA developed a list of “project desirables" based on public feedback. But, when the design concept was unveiled, there was major backlash from preservationists. Much of the criticism has revolved around the 1962 Bunshaft addition and the impact the proposed concept will have on it. What are your thoughts?


Michael Tunkey: Actually, this has been a multi-decade effort by supporters of the A-K. The process so far has involved the decision to expand, the original master-plan, the hiring of the museum leadership, the public outreach and stakeholder meetings, a request for qualifications from a large group of design firms, and—ultimately—a competition between a handful of renowned architects. All of this work has culminated in the extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime Gundlach gift [Financial executive, Jeffrey Gundlach, donated $42.5 million dollars to the capital campaign]. So, I respect the concerns from my friends in the preservation community; I just ask that they consider the other stakeholders in the process and look for positive, non-confrontational modes of collaboration.


David Steele: I would take issue with the categorization of this as a “preservationist” issue. It’s a word often used pejoratively to describe groups who would like to freeze our architectural heritage in amber. I don’t think there is an argument being made that the Gallery campus should be frozen in time. The low slung marble slab of the Knox wing with its graceful black glass theater is a great example of how sensitivity to the context can yield an elegant solution. 


Richard Huntington: In 1962, when Gordon Bunshaft designed the AKAG expansion, there was no thought among architects that they should consider any future expansion. What they did back then was to be the end of the line, eternally workable, a final immutable aesthetic statement.


*DS: The OMA proposal does some things right, bringing back the Elmwood staircase, eliminating surface parking. But, let me ask, what is so compelling about this proposal that justifies removing so much of Bunshaft’s work? The concept eliminates a large piece of the Bunshaft wing to completely alter its original design intent and drastically change the appearance and composition of the 1905 building as well. The current buildings are arguably great masterpieces by two of America’s greatest architects, who also both happen to be from Buffalo.
*(This response from David Steele is incorrectly attributed to Michael Tunkey in Spree's print edition.)


RH: When it comes to Bunshaft’s interior, everyone should be applauding the removal of the awful Lilliputian square-donut galleries surrounding the spiritless, placeless sculpture court whose main message is, “Move along. Nothing to see here!”  


One of the problems the museum faces in designing an addition is that every element involved is sacred to someone. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy objects to further encroachment into the park, the 1905 E. B. Green building is important historical architecture, and many consider the 1962 addition equally important. Yet expansion is badly needed, and the public does not favor a separate site. What’s the solution?    


DS: There is no doubt that the Albright-Knox expansion ranks among the most difficult design problems an architect can encounter. This project, with a graceful Greek temple married harmoniously to a masterwork of modern architecture set in an Olmsted Park, puts every move and concept under a microscope. The fail side of this equation has more possibilities than the success side. 


MT: I like the term “sacred” because it speaks to the broad spectrum of belief amongst preservationists. The most orthodox believe that not a single stone should be touched on the Bunshaft facade, and the most liberal believe that even radical transformation is possible if carefully considered. I’m more on the liberal end of the spectrum. Objectively, I think there are only two real choices for the addition: spread out or densify. They’ve chosen the more ambitious and challenging option of densifying the site by adding a third volume between the Green building and the Bunshaft auditorium. I understand the concerns that this direction provokes, but I can also personally imagine a version of this approach that would be better than simply adding another building to the site.  My recommendation is to raise the preservation concerns and let the design team respond.


RH: The gallery finds itself in dire need of expansion and nowhere to expand to without disrupting Bunshaft’s design. The elegance and beauty of Bunshaft’s exterior solution is not in doubt. (The interior is another matter.) From the outside, his black minimalist glass box set on the far end of a long, low white plinth is in canny occult balance to E. B. Green’s white neoclassical structure.


DS: The Olmsted vision for this part of the park was wiped away more than 100 years ago when the original gallery was built and an entirely new landscape design was imposed. The park was further eroded when surface parking was added in the early 1960s leaving a severely degraded front yard for the museum. It’s disingenuous to say that the degraded park environment is sacrosanct, while Bunshaft’s addition is not.


When the Bunshaft wing was added, it significantly modified the 1905 building, eliminating a grand staircase facing Elmwood, and altering the symmetrical footprint for the building. The dramatic Elmwood entrance was replaced with a small cubic glass entryway. And yet that design met with general approval. Why was that rather dramatic alteration of the existing building acceptable, where this proposal is not?   


MT: I’m guessing that had Facebook and blogs existed in the sixties, there would have been pushback to Bunshaft’s radical transformation. Prior to Bunshaft’s design, the Green building would likely have been viewed as a classically platonic, hermetically sealed, pure object totally incompatible with Modernist asymmetry. So, the lesson I take from our generation’s love of the Bunshaft building is that great design can lead to unexpected epiphanies and resolutions.


DS: The Knox wing is a sublime work of architecture. It manages to make its own visual statement without grabbing for all the attention. It allows the E. B. Green building to remain as the primary focus of the composition, as its classical architecture demands. The Knox wing sits gently against the original building, making reference to its scale, materiality, and quality of construction.


RH: But perfection has its drawbacks; put an apple out there anywhere on that plinth and you upset Bunshaft’s exquisite equilibrium.


DS: Proponents of the OMA concept rightfully point to reintroduction of the Elmwood stair as a positive element of the design. But that could easily be reintroduced without demolishing any part of the 1962 building. The OMA proposal represents the opposite approach to the quiet Bunshaft concept. There is nothing quiet about the OMA proposal. It’s like the loudmouth at the party who wants to be heard above everyone else.


RH: Any new expansion requires connectivity. Nobody wants a tunnel-access annex, and most would not be happy with a modish mole hole buried in the present parking lot. Any solution will diminish Bunshaft. You can’t get around it. Expand the footprint and add a new box to one side or the other, no matter how it is designed, and you have one big tug on the eyeballs that makes Bunshaft’s box look incidental, if not extraneous. There is only one place to go: in the very gap that creates the dynamism of Bunshaft’s design.


Speaking of that gap, the proposed design concept gives the public access to the park through the glass atrium, even when they are not visiting the gallery. Currently, you can get to the park by walking around the museum, though both routes are not particularly welcoming or attractive. The concept proposal provides something of a grand entrance to the park, which better integrates the museum with its surroundings. Putting aside other issues, how do you feel about this concept?


MT: I love this idea. I encourage everyone to go look for themselves. If you stand on the southeast side of the AKAG, you will see a blank wall and a basement egress stair. Again, the most orthodox preservationists may say that this condition, too, is sacrosanct. Personally, I can imagine a way to pierce this facade while also respecting the integrity of the Bunshaft plinth. This is one of Shigematsu’s many design challenges.


RH: What you gain by this gap assault is immense: a grand entryway to replace Bunshaft’s pee-wee sized vestibule and—importantly—a unification of the park’s front and back, both visually and spatially.


DS: This concept of the glass atrium as an entry to the park is a bit disingenuous. Is this atrium space pass-through going to be open twenty-four hours a day? Will there really be a view through to the park or will shades be drawn to block sun damage? Why is this particular axis now such an important place to enter the park? Olmsted designed Lincoln Parkway as the park’s grand entry. Is his vision no longer valid? It was noted that the current passage around the museum is not attractive. The OMA design team includes one of the most respected landscape architects working today. Is it not possible to enhance this passage without destroying the Knox wing?  


Final thoughts?


DS: The E. B. Green and Bunshaft buildings are extremely important works of American architecture. Any change to these buildings cannot be taken lightly. The expansion proposal is not simply a change, but a wholesale elimination of a major part of the gallery complex. Gordon Bunshaft is among the most important architects in the history of architecture. That he is from Buffalo and produced this wonderful building for Buffalo is something to take note of. Demolition of the Bunshaft wing should be a nonstarter. The Gallery needs to look on these buildings as part of their world-class collection of art. What other sculpture or painting in the collection would they offer up for this kind of treatment?


RH: What OMA needs to do is to get as much air under its design as possible. It needs a sense of lift, a thing that treads lightly—dances even—on Bunshaft’s plinth and bows gracefully equally in two directions, toward E. B. Green iconic columns and towards Bunshaft’s reflective box.


MT: You should be very skeptical of anyone who offers an alternative architect or design solution. The best critics will usually state their values and concerns—not jump to an undemocratic process or partially considered conclusion. Try to understand the difference between the final design and this design direction. I compare these early design stages to the way you look in the mirror a few minutes at a new haircut. It can be awkward and uncanny. We should evaluate and critique the design direction—consolidation—not the image—floating blocks. Finally, if you are critiquing the process, please also make sure to update your membership with the museum. Our generation sometimes confuses posting an opinion on social media with genuine civic engagement. They are not the same thing.


Artist and educator Bruce Adams writes on many topics for Spree, including his new online column, Long Story Short.


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