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Editorial: Big thinking is leading to a dazzling transformation of the Albright-Knox

Spectacular isn’t a word that is thrown around too much in Buffalo, but it’s the exact right word to describe the planned expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. With glass walls, underground parking and a connection to the adjacent parkland, the project is nothing less than transformative.

The announcement of the project’s details is the culmination of months of creative planning and, significantly, fundraising. That it has all come together as quickly and joyfully as it did is a testament both to forethought and fortune.

Two of the key factors were in the unusual way the Albright-Knox solicited ideas from potential architects and in its luck at fundraising. Together, they cleared the way for the dramatic announcement last week by the gallery’s director, Janne Sirén.

In seeking architects, the gallery required those who were interested to submit plans, not for the expansion, itself, but to demonstrate their thought processes and approach to design. Out of that competition came last year’s designation of the internationally known Office for Metropolitan Architecture.

Without money, though, OMA couldn’t plan to paint the bathroom, let alone come up with a stunning, $155 million design – nearly double the cost attached to the early planning. The gallery’s fundraising took care of most of that problem.

A team led by M&T Bank Chairman Robert Wilmers went to work, aided considerably by the planned donation of $42.5 million from Jeffrey Gundlach, a Los Angeles billionaire who is a native of Western New York with fond memories of visiting the Albright-Knox. With the more substantial –and expensive – approach, the gallery still needs to raise another $30 million. No one is betting against its success.

Together, those factors swept planning ahead, leading to Wednesday’s announcement of a multifaceted renovation project. In includes:

• A sunken parking lot beneath a restored public green space along Elmwood Avenue.

• A reconfiguration of Gordon Bunshaft’s 1962 addition into a grand public entry hall.

• Creation of 23,000 square feet of new gallery space split between two new buildings.

First is a 13,000-square-foot space with 16.5-foot ceilings between E.B. Green’s original 1905 building and Bunshaft’s auditorium. It features glass walls on all sides, providing elevated, 360-degree views of Delaware Park and the neighborhood.

The second new building features a grand staircase and 10,000 square feet of additional gallery space dug into the ground along the Elmwood Avenue side of the 1905 structure.

It’s a stunning and – yes – spectacular plan that stands to accomplish what Sirén suggested when he first broached the seemingly fantastic fundraising goal of $80 million: to make the gallery and its environs a North Buffalo version of Canalside – an irresistible and favorite gathering place for both residents and visitors.

It’s good to dream big. Sirén and the others who made this happen could have set their sights lower and come up with less.

Because they dared to aim high, they have produced a plan that will help to transform that part of Buffalo and push along the revival that is propelling this remarkable city.

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