Hunting and Gathering

Notes on the American museum, the natural, and history

To remember what happens to the best laid schemes of mice and men, refer to the vast reef-like accretions that are New York City’s great museums: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The American Museum of Natural History. They tend to start out with some kind of all-purpose efficiency core in the revived Romanesque-ish or Gothic-ish styles favored between the Civil War and the Gilded Age, when the city smartened itself up after the 1865 conflagration of P. T. Barnum’s downtown cosmorama and menagerie—bogus Fiji mermaid and all. This core is likely a thriftily truncated structure made in unrealized anticipation—time and money pending—of further picturesque castellation. Over the next half century that core and any memory of its unbuilt permutation generally gets encased and submerged into a neoclassical composition in the very long shadow of the Beaux-Arts school, featuring long cross-axial pink-granite-clad wings around foursquare light courts, into which are subsequently socketed invisible brick annexes and stealthy members’ lounges and the occasional midcentury modern auditorium or planetarium, until a Kevin Roche sort of influence comes along to try to stitch and suture with all the humanism of deep modernism.

A succession of would-be totalizing systems and plans all give way, through the usual cycles of financial panic and stylistic fashion—stumbling past peak coal and peak oil—to complication and complexity. We get a little of everything, and nothing turns out the way we thought. In this way all such museums become museums of the nature of history and of the history of nature.

The seams show, as well as the scars. What appear to be massive stone entablatures out of ancient Rome reveal themselves, in the usual Manhattan way, to be showy veneers dead-ending at humble brick party walls. Mostly blank walls intended to be the backs of buildings become for decades—as at the American Museum of Natural History along the secondary Columbus Avenue prospect of its Columbus–to–Central Park West and 77th-to-81st campus—accidental fronts. For that museum, Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould proposed a master plan of Venetian Gothic towers and pavilions, in what remains a public city park adjacent to Central Park, of which between 1874 and 1877 was built only an enduring fragment. The usual labyrinthine palimpsest of some twenty-five interconnected structures ensued instead, notably including a grandiose Central Park West entrance fashioned in the 1930s after a Roman triumphal arch by John Russell Pope, and James Stewart Polshek’s big turn-of-the-millennium white-sphere-within-a-glass-cube planetarium addressing 81st Street. The latest addition, at $465 million, 230,000 square feet, and six stories, is called the Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation. It has been expertly designed by Studio Gang, alongside the usual suspects of exhibition specialists Applebaum Associates and executive architects Davis Brody Bond. It slots tightly into the middle of the campus’s Columbus Avenue–facing side—where once stood two substantial infrastructural and administrative annexes from 1908; a small glass Polshek pavilion; a former quarter acre of parkland; plus seven big old specimen trees. (That loss is down from nine: a towering pin oak and an English elm were spared the axe by rerouting a service road in response to community advocacy.) It provides an accessible and noticeable entrance on axis with the traces of Mould and Vaux’s original east-west centerline. It makes visible through vitrines and internal windows the back-of-house storage and curatorial operations for some three thousand of the museum’s thirty-four million artifacts and specimens. It features eighteen classrooms, new and renovated; a library and reading room; a restaurant; an immersive projection room that plays something lysergic called “Invisible Worlds” on a twelve-minute loop. There’s a humid vivarium upstairs with some five hundred captive butterflies that will land on your shoulders. Mostly there’s a big sunlit atrium, skylights and skybridge above, with a monumental staircase (incorporating sociable see-and-be-seen amphitheater-type seating) that’s easily the twenty-first-century equal of the one by Richard Morris Hunt across the park at the Metropolitan. The staircase—behind the presumably temporarily blank wall at its summit are cabinets full of millions more butterflies, alas of the pinned kind—is at the heart of the project’s Ariadne-worthy weaving together of the campus’s formerly jumbled circulation. New corridors and staircases generously—and all the more legibly thanks to graphic wayfinding consulting by Pentagram—encounter the old ones at thirty intersections. It’s good to stand on a balcony-like corridor overlooking the atrium, where all the pipes and ducts and walls and stairs are theatrically blacked out, as if you are backstage watching a play, and behind you are luminous vitrine-like windows into storage rooms, where you might see a mammoth skull or an example of intricate craftwork in reeds or clay, like players readying for the next act.

THE INSTANTLY (and Instagrammably) iconic feature is the curving and perforated periphery of that atrium, a visually striking double-curving structural shell that wraps everything in shotcrete, the formwork-free ferroconcrete made by spraying the cementitious stuff onto variably dense meshes and cages of steel rebar. This saves the energy, wood, polymers, and redoubled labor of conventionally cast concrete. A full-height glass wall addressing Columbus Avenue, along with those skylights, provides savings on electric illumination, and bathes the shell in dynamic daylit chiaroscuro. It looks cool.

Maybe because we New Yorkers have been acculturated, falsely, to think of straight lines and grids as a neutral default—the graph paper of life—we intimate that there is something informative or expressive in curves, and we read into them. For New York Magazine, Justin Davidson, a composer and classical music scholar who also writes about architecture, noted the onstage-backstage theatricality common to both arts: “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.” For Bloomberg CityLab, Alexandra Lange observed that “new museum additions invariably come with a big, top-lit atrium that’s great for fundraising, both as an image donors want to attach their names to and as a space for black-tie galas. Whether they are orthogonal and minimalist, or scenographic and maximalist, they upset the balance of content and container, robbing servant spaces like hallways, bathrooms and elevators—so essential to good visitor experience—of their own chance for the design spotlight.” For the online bulletin of the New Yorker, Christopher Hawthorne extrapolated the Gilder Center from the long twentieth-century history of swoop: “the relevant architectural precedents include Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany, of 1921; thin-shell mid-century designs by Félix Candela and Eero Saarinen … Le Corbusier’s curvilinear but substantial late-career buildings, in particular his concrete Notre Dame du Haut Chapel on a hilltop in Ronchamp, France, completed in 1955.” To be sure, each of those swoops—from prewar gestural expressionism to postwar aeronautical technocracy—signified something quite different for each of their times and places. For right here and right now, Hawthorne suggested that the cool of it all was an answer to the question of “what specific role architecture can play in bolstering or backstopping science [in] our fraught political, ecological, and cultural moment. Gang … imagined that one way might be to install charismatic exhibits within an architectural envelope that is itself a spectacle. The goal was to demonstrate that nature is awe inspiring, yes—but also that the quest to understand and document it might bring us closer to the wellspring of awe.” For the Dallas Morning News, under the irresistible headline “Yabadabadoo,” Mark Lamster wrote, “With the Dallas Museum of Art planning an expansion project intending to establish new connections, lure with dramatic design and improve navigation, let me suggest a trip to [the Gilder Center]. Since its unveiling it has become something of a simile-generating machine, prompting comparisons to the canyons of the American southwest, termite mounds, the set design of Planet of the Apes, and (the popular favorite) the cartoon architecture of Bedrock, hometown of Fred and Wilma Flintstone.” The language of Studio Gang’s project description affords many of these same readings: “Natural form-making processes informed the architecture. Akin to a porous geological formation shaped by the flow of wind and water the building’s central five-story atrium greets arriving visitors like an intriguing landscape, ready to be explored.”

The difficulty is that public appreciation of architecture of the romantic, spectacular, charismatic, alluring, dramatic, evocative, simile-evoking kind may now, a generation past the year 2000, hinder a certain public appreciation of science.

Romantic sets. Spectacle. Charismatic. Lure. Dramatic. Intriguing. A machine of simile, (and facsimile). Informed by. Akin. Like. Such language describes what great city museums have been and done for a long time. When coercive and addicting visual stimuli and simulacra colonize ever more our senses and immersive experiences through the feeds that beam across our palms and retinas, one could posit that the art we live in—architecture—must become still more spectacular to compete for eyeballs—and perhaps even footfalls. Complementarily, one could say that the suspenseful spatial experiences offered by hyperformalist interiors and the stimulating tactile experiences of crafty materials are also useful inducements for architectural subjects to return to their senses in our semi-post-pandemic era—and to the act of gathering in a meatspace commons, a public assembly on which some might say a healthy democracy and biosphere ultimately depend. Yet such an assertion also risks reinforcing a narrow understanding of museums—as secular reliquary cathedrals for catalyzing pilgrimage, or at least tourism—that can be dated. Fairly precisely: to on or about September 7, 1997, when the New York Times ran its magazine cover story called “The Miracle in Bilbao.”

Remember the Bilbao Effect? It sounds now like another Robert Ludlum novel, another Jason Bourne sequel, another Tom Cruise vehicle. A Canadian Californian architect called Frank Gehry—whom I opine was once, until circa 1987, among North America’s best since Kahn—designs in the middle-1990s a franchise of the Guggenheim Museum for the unprepossessing Spanish rust belt city of Bilbao. It’s chonky, squishy-looking and shiny. Hype and self-congratulation, somehow of an especially neoliberal post–Berlin Wall, pre-9/11, let-the-good-times-roll kind, follows. On the evening of February 11, 2000, erstwhile celebrity journalist Charlie Rose interviews a roundtable including architect James Stewart Polshek, architecture critic Paul Goldberger, museum president Eileen Futter, and others about Polshek’s new planetarium and entrance for the Natural History Museum. Rose fires one off at Goldberger: “I mean, tell me what it compares to that—in terms of … I mean, for most places. I mean, you’re—are we talking here about something on the scale of Bilbao, on the scale of—of the Louvre in terms of what I. M. Pei did, on the scale of—of very important architectural creations of public institutions.” There’s a long pause. In my imagination Polshek shrinks into his chair a little: the planetarium is fine design, but in its elegant restraint it knows that the Upper West Side, the very island of Manhattan at the center of its world, doesn’t need quite that kind of ornament. Goldberger rallies: “I think we are. I don’t know that it will shake people’s sense of the meaning and potential of architecture in quite the same way Bilbao did, but … will mean as much in terms of public appreciation of architecture, I think, as it will mean in terms of public appreciation of science.”

The difficulty is that public appreciation of architecture of the romantic, spectacular, charismatic, alluring, dramatic, evocative, simile-evoking kind may now, a generation past the year 2000, hinder a certain public appreciation of science. It may hinder the advent of an aesthetics—a new beauty still to be discovered—that responds to the main implication of the science of our times. This is the science of global heating; of our civilizational squandering of a one-time-only three-century energy boost; of the current sixth great extinction of humankind’s fellow mortal creatures; of just how many of those millions of pinned butterflies have no heirs. To adapt Hawthorne’s musings a little, “an architectural envelope that is itself a spectacle,” may demonstrate not so much that nature and its study are awe-inspiring, but that architecture can be—especially of a narrow spectacularity that we have been acculturated to expect of it.

Yet there are many ways to be awesome—and not all of them spectacular. You will be familiar with the back-of-envelope math that as little as 20 percent of a building’s effect on its associated carbon and energetic systems is in such lifetime operations as lighting and cooling; and as much as 80 percent is in the extraction, transportation, manufacturing, installation and demolition, and eventual decay of its constituent materials: all that is now described by the phrase “embodied energy.” And the building sector, it also says on the back of my envelope, accounts for as much as a third of global carbon emissions in the developed world. This means we must make do and mend. This means getting better at recouping from all the sunk costs in all the built environments all around us. This means we must live, with ever more dignity and delight, into the density of our hyperurbanizing cities. Materially, this means always treating the existing built environment as we might a forest or a field or a quarry: a place for hunting and gathering and harvesting. Architecturally—and so with even greater economy of means than in material practice alone—this means remodeling, renovating, repurposing, reclaiming, repairing, retrofitting, renewing, regenerating, upcycling, and every other manner of adaptive reuse.

ON THE GILDER CENTER’s west facade, the stonework is shaped to echo the billowing curves of the shotcrete interior. It also matches the handsome pink granite on the old facades nearby, because in a classy touch it comes from the very same quarry in Milford, Massachusetts—via milling in Germany and panelization on Long Island. I wonder what it would have looked like to instead quarry those stones right from the old building next door: history contributing—by way of embodied energy savings achieved by minimizing the distances of material geography—to nature. What would it have looked like to have made something delightful and poetical of the constellation of openings left behind? Publicity materials for the new wing state 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.” How very much would I like to swap in the word “embody” for the word “exhibit”—which, alas, covers a multitude of meanings: to either actually demonstrate and make manifest in its own self, or else merely to accommodate illustrations of care elsewhere.

As part of its permitting process in 2016, the museum hired a consulting firm—specialists in shepherding projects with fraught historic preservation considerations—by the deliciously Dickensian name of Higgins Quasebarth and Partners. Their Historic Preservation Background Research Report, from September of that year, was at pains to persuade that two of the old buildings whose destruction the new plan would necessitate, “Building 15, the Former Power House and south adjoining Boiler House, later known as Buildings 15 and 15A, respectively,” were just working buildings, much changed over time, and so not of much interest. As if appraising not a building but a mere artwork—whose commercial value would have only to do with its appearance, provenance, and absence of modification subsequent to its making—the report states that “these buildings combine recent date, utilitarian design, limited visibility, and loss of integrity, and as such are not historically significant to the museum complex.” I would argue that the power house was as historically significant, in its own way, as any fancier component of the campus. But what if the appraisal was not only of historical significance, but of natural significance? The fact of those structures’ long endurance and sustained usefulness through repair and adaption—and so of their ever deepening return, since 1908, on the lost cost of their embodied carbon and energy—is surely of interest to Mother Nature. Instead, the consultants report: “Building 15’s plain brick west elevations [suggest] that it was not intended for public view.” “Building 15 has been substantially altered over the years.” “In 1988, the west elevation of Building 15 was stuccoed to match Building 15A.”

All this gets me pretty excited for Building 15! Utilitarian former power houses from the Edwardian age often become, by adaptive reuse, extraordinary public places for museums. (This is why we must keep a close eye on the Pennsylvania Station Service Building on West 31st Street, the uncanny sole survivor of the McKim Mead & White landmark that is at new risk of destruction.) Higgins or Quasebarth may even be able to find an iconic proof of concept: In the long run, Herzog & de Meuron’s 1997 conversion of Gilles Scott’s 1893 Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern, along the Thames, will surely matter far more than that Basque bauble. Flash back to February of 2000, and you can hear Charlie Rose and company getting pretty hyped by the excitement of brand new construction instead of the conservation and renovation of the landmark 1935 Hayden Planetarium that the museum had previously considered:

Charlie Rose: But the idea was—was in a sense—to remodel it [and] not start over.

Ellen Futter: Absolutely, but once we began to really get into it and hear the great ideas ... it became apparent that this place was its rocket ship to the next century.

Today, we know that there is no starting over. In 2023, such easy dismissal of all the embodied energy and design intelligence already conserved within an existing structure wouldn’t be undertaken so lightly. Twenty years from now, it will be untenable. And even now, it’s sobering. As Lange intimated, the Gilder Center’s clients were still sufficiently cultural historians of the twentieth century to imagine that the project had to answer—to donors, to pilgrims, to tourists—to a dated formulation of spectacularity. But they were sufficiently naturalists of the twenty-first century to understand that they couldn’t build quite as they once did. It may be that Studio Gang principal Jeanne Gang, a generational talent, had the strange fortune to be hired by an institution still making its way between one generation of thought and the next.

What would it have looked like if the Museum of Natural History had leap-frogged ahead? What if it had sought to apply the best practices of the immediate future and the necessarily standard practices of the post-hydrocarbon, post-energy-surplus world to come? What if the museum—as an institution with particular concern, with the acceleration of geological timelines into human lifetimes, for the imbrication of nature and culture—had made different choices? What if, as conservators of fossils, they had decided not to burn any as fuel? What if they had sought to destroy nothing of any existing buildings and to add to them simply a sufficiency, beautiful and operational, to solve circulation and update program? What if they had necessarily destroyed some of Buildings 15 and 15A—maybe to make that gala-capable atrium—but had proceeded with a dissection of such curatorial and archaeological care as to enable the harvesting and quarrying of every brick, every slab, and every slate for the making, on-site, of new structures and new beauties—that donors might even give you half a billion dollars for? What if they had designed a financing model that emphasized long-term asset endurance and not heavily upfront mechanisms of debt and so of donation? What if all these development decisions had required only a tenth or a hundredth of the capital actually spent? What if—current custodians of Indigenous artifacts and longtime stewards of ingenious organisms—the museum had reminded us that skillful technologies and resilient systems shouldn’t be conflated only with fuel-efficient machines? And might sometimes look more like the Flintstones than the Jetsons? And so had opted to use not one drop of upstream petroleum, nor even one ounce of Bolivian-mined lithium in a Chinese-made battery? And had instead gathered those stones together by sail and by hand? It can be done. It has been done. It will be done. It is only the accumulated embarrassments imposed on us by the Victorian and atomic ages that make such practices seem old-fashioned and not cutting-edge, makes all this seem pious and not ecstatic—as well as strategic. If not now, when? If not the community of a museum of nature and of history, then who?

Today, we know there is no starting over. In 2023, such easy dismissal of all the embodied energy and design intelligence already conserved within an existing structure wouldn’t be undertaken so lightly. Twenty years from now, it will be untenable. And even now, it’s sobering.

WHEN I VISITED the museum for a press preview, Jeanne Gang sat with me under the lamellae-like fins of the mushroomy column in the new reading room, and we looked together at her portfolio of powerful and meaningful drawings. The first was the most spectacular. But the last was the best. The first was a provocative and poignant collage of an engraving of a box canyon facing into a photograph of Manhattan-henge, that pseudosolstice day in which the sun sets exactly along the angle of the Manhattan gridiron and so seems to promise a better alignment between nature and culture than we have so far managed on Spaceship Earth. The last drawing was a color-coded map of the carefully calibrated adjustments made to the positioning and relative densities of rebar mesh and cementitious material in different zones of the shotcrete shell. This diagram shows how, for all its visual appeal and inviting readability, the striking geometry is for far more than looks. The seemingly baroque compound curves are actually a kind of engineering minimalism: they can enable new structural lines of force to travel around new volumes of space, down to find old and preexisting foundations, like those first built for good old Building 15 and Building 15A. This is the architectural equivalent of regenerative agriculture, of no-till gardening, that leaves the subterranean mycosphere to work its will. This deeper repurposing of preexisting structures, this radical resourcefulness about the generative and adaptive reuse of the still-present past—this is the architecture of the future.

All the gates around Central Park have Romantic names. The one nearest the Museum of Natural History is The Hunters’ Gate—evoking patterns of predation and cultivation between all creatures great and small, even between men and mice. The author of the poem from which the familiar rhetorical entanglement of those mammalian fates originates was farmer-poet Robert Burns—himself caught between generations, between the vernacular literary traditions that preceded him and the great Romantic age that followed. The schemes of mice and men went awry, and the poem was written, “To a Mouse,” Burns wrote, “On turning her up in her nest, with the Plough, November 1785.” “I’m truly sorry, Man’s dominion / Has broken Nature’s social union / And justified that ill opinion, Which makes thee startle, / At me, thy poor earth-born companion / And fellow-mortal!” The mouse, Burns reports, doesn’t make it through the winter. May we fare better.

Thomas de Monchaux is the author, with Deborah Berke, of Transform: Promising Places, Second Chances, and the Architecture of Transformational Change, now available from Monacelli/Phaidon. He also continues his lonely campaign for NYRA rat mascot plush toys.