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In first public appearance, Albright-Knox architect promises to extend city’s legacy of design

Buffalonians got their first glimpse at the man who will reshape the Museum District Tuesday night in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, where architect Shohei Shigematsu spoke during a public meeting about Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s $125 million expansion project.

Albright-Knox leaders chose Shigematsu, who runs the New York City office of the global architecture firm OMA, from a shortlist of five buzzworthy architecture firms in June that competed to design the gallery’s first major expansion in more than 60 years.

Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén said Tuesday night that the project, which recently received a major boost from Buffalo-born billionaire Jeffrey Gundlach and has already exceeded its original fundraising goal of $80 million, is likely to break ground “sometime in the first half of 2019.”

“We are very delighted to be part of this continuum of your great history in this city,” said Shigematsu in his brief presentation, during which he ticked off OMA’s recent or ongoing projects in Miami, Quebec City, Milan, Seattle and Washington.

He then launched into an overview of the challenges his firm will face during the design process, from better integrating the museum into the park and city and merging the architectural styles of three different eras to working with a piece of parkland that has been vastly modified in the 150 years since it was created.

“These kinds of constraints are often a great driver for architecture to come,” Shigematsu said, while the phrase “design challenges = new opportunities” appeared on the screen behind him.

Shigematsu, who was accompanied by five other OMA staffers, did not discuss any specifics for his firm’s design. The point of the meeting, rather, was to gather public input on the direction of the project.

The gallery and OMA will work together for the next six months to gather more public opinion and to create a concept and a concrete look for the new gallery.

After Sirén and Shigematsu finished their remarks, attendees broke off into small groups targeted at specific interests like the placement of a new building, the need for new social spaces, the gallery’s relationship to the park and neighborhood and education programs.

Perhaps the liveliest discussion took place in the southeast corner of the room, where OMA staffer Laura Baird addressed questions about the potential for tunnels or bridges connecting the Burchfield Penney Art Center to the future Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum, the replacement or removal of roads connecting the gallery to the Scajaquada Expressway and the future of Clifton Hall, a brick building at the southern edge of the gallery’s land.

While Baird did not give any definitive answers, she suggested that much of the process will revolve around tradeoffs between expensive wish list items like underground tunnels and the practical realities of the gallery’s construction budget.

She also revealed that during the architecture competition, OMA proposed 14 different design schemes that explored “everything you could imagine.”

The general mood at the event was one of cautious optimism about the project, with many if not most suggestions focusing on the need to respect the relationship between the gallery and the park that surrounds it and the potential for restoring some part of the park to its original state.

Frits Abell, a developer and longtime patron of the gallery, said he was encouraged by Shigematsu’s presentation.

“I love that he already is on top of the holistic view, the historic nature of the park and the neighborhood,” Abell said.

The next public meeting on the project is planned for Nov. 1 in a location to be announced.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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