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The American Museum of Natural History recently came out with some good news — a museum expansion that for once seems as if it could work.
A year ago, the museum announced plans for the $325 million, 218,000-square-foot Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation. Jeanne Gang, founder of Studio Gang, the high-profile Chicago-based firm, won a competition to design it. She teamed with Reed Hilderbrand, the landscape architects from Cambridge, Mass.
Because no new development ever goes unchallenged on the Upper West Side, protesters raised hell, even though architects were still hunched over their drawing boards. Facing west, toward Columbus Avenue, on what’s effectively the rear end of the museum, the project threatened a serendipitous corner of Theodore Roosevelt Park. Opponents feared the project would obliterate that area’s shady allée of trees and benches.
Judith Heintz, a landscape architect, designed that spot some 15 years ago, when the museum last expanded, adding the Rose Center for Earth and Science to the north, and the Weston Pavilion, which Gilder will replace, at 79th Street. One neighborhood group, Defenders of Teddy Roosevelt Park, offered on its website a model of the current museum, with an ominous red line where the still-sight-unseen center would supposedly devour the allée.
Well, now we know more or less what the actual project looks like. It bids to be the city’s next architectural spectacle.
The museum’s trustees approved a conceptual design on Wednesday and released drawings and renderings. The project promises much more room for education, exhibitions, laboratories, the library, open storage and a live butterfly conservatory. It includes a new theater devoted to invisible worlds — meaning microscopic creatures, the human brain, the ocean depths and the edge of the universe. The proposed center also solves humdrum but critical layout problems, integrating dead-end galleries and bringing public spaces, classrooms and research together in a single, soaring, canyonlike, central hall, behind an undulating stone-and-glass facade. […]