In the summer of 1957, the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy announced plans to expand the Albright Art Gallery by plopping a modernist box onto the east steps of its original building.
Public reaction to the plan, conceived by architect Paul Schweikher and approved in secret by the board, was damning. The gallery changed course, enlisting the Buffalo-born architect Gordon Bunshaft to design a new building on a separate site.
Bunshaft's austere and respectful addition, a sleek modern counterpoint to the neoclassical architecture of E.B. Green's 1905 building, opened to near-unanimous praise in 1962. In its first year of operation, Bunshaft's building helped to draw a record 782,815 people through the gallery's doors.
But now, after Albright-Knox officials announced plans to replace the galleries and courtyard of Bunshaft's addition with a grand public space, local and national preservationists, critics and defenders of the architect's legacy are hoping for a repeat of history.
Reaction in local preservationist circles to the renderings released by architecture firm OMA was generally negative, prompting a strongly worded letter from Buffalo's Preservation Board warning the gallery about the building's status as a landmark protected from radical renovations.
And while Buffalo's preservation community sometimes plays the role of vocal minority on major projects such as this, criticism of the plan is also mounting from national experts who consider Bunshaft's 1962 building to be one of the architect's greatest achievements.
"Let's be clear: This is a disaster for the City of Buffalo," wrote Nicholas Adams, a professor of architectural history at Vassar College and an expert on Bunshaft's work, in an email to The News. "Buffalo needs to repeat its history here, reject an insensitive proposal, and avoid the destruction of an important work of architecture."
Adams, whose biography of Bunshaft is due out in 2018 from Yale University Press and who co-curated the Central Library's current exhibition "Building Buffalo," placed the 1962 addition among Buffalo's architectural gems: Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building; Richard Upjohn's St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral; the H.H. Richardson complex; Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House; and Eliel and Eero Saarinen's Kleinhans Music Hall.
"There is no good reason to alter the building other than to appear hip and contemporary or else to be large enough to warrant adding Mr. Gundlach's name to the building," said Carol Herselle Krinsky, a New York University art history professor and author of the 1988 book "Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill." She was referring to mega-donor Jeffrey Gundlach, whose name will adorn the new museum when it opens in 2021.
OMA's Shohei Shigematsu, who is leading the design of the project with a team of architects based in New York City, said he views the landmark status of the Bunshaft building and the limitations that come along with it as one of the "essential drivers of the design, rather than impediments to the design."
"We’re certainly sensitive to respecting this important component of the campus, just as we’re sensitive to respecting the 1905 E.B. Green Building and Olmsted’s Delaware Park," he wrote in an email to The News while traveling in Asia. "It’s an honor to be invited to continue in the legacy of these esteemed designers, who have already proven that innovation and preservation can coexist on the Albright-Knox Campus."
Shigematsu noted that OMA has considerable experience with historic preservation, having completed four cultural projects in sensitive historic contexts. These include transforming a gin distillery into a cultural space for the Prada Foundation in Milan; renovating a "Soviet-era canteen" into a contemporary art museum in Moscow; placing a new building next to a historic church on protected parkland in Quebec City; and renovating a landmarked Art Deco building for the Shigematsu-designed Faena Arts District in Miami.
Closer to home, at Cornell University in Ithaca, OMA added a new building to the campus linking two landmarked buildings. That building, featuring a prominent cantilever, has earned mixed reviews.
"Like it or not, Bunshaft's 1962 addition did attempt to respect the existing structure and the landscape. Today, modern buildings of that time and the landscapes within and outside of them are regularly undervalued and endangered," said Michael Tomlan, the director of the graduate program in historic preservation planning at Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning. "The cantilevered 'floating observation gallery' is too large and imposing for the site, simply an attempt to create an 'architectural icon.' "
Shigematsu said that OMA is "currently monitoring all of the conversations around the concept, positive and negative," but will hew to what it called the "project desirables" that the gallery laid out after a series of public meetings.
"I’m personally interested in using architecture to reveal layers of history," he said. "With all these projects, having an open dialogue – with the local community, state and federal boards, and a dialogue between the old and new – has been critical to the success of the project."
Albright-Knox Art Gallery director Janne Sirén characterized the outcry of critics and preservationists as premature because the renderings the gallery and OMA released do not represent final designs.
He also noted that the gallery is under no obligation to share its process with the public.
"Our process has been premised, for better or for worse, on a degree of openness and a sort of democratic principle," said Sirén, whose museum receives about $500,000 annually from Erie County taxpayers in addition to $20 million in public funding for the expansion project from state and local sources. "This is a private foundation, so there's nothing forcing our arm on this. There is no obligation for us to do what we have done."
Sirén also promoted a utilitarian view of architecture sure to further rankle preservationists, for whom the gallery's existing buildings are as sacrosanct as its Picassos and Pollocks.
"We are also not in the business of collecting buildings. We are an art museum and our service is to our public and to the artworks in our custody," Sirén said. "The buildings are here to serve us, and not us as the staff, but the public and the art. That is our foremost responsibility. The buildings are the utilitarian tools, in some respect, that allow us to accomplish our mission."
Buffalo architect Mike Tunkey, of the Grand Island-based firm Cannon Design, called for a calm and open dialogue between critics and supporters of OMA's plan.
"I tend to believe that there's a version of the scheme that OMA is looking at that could respect the integrity of the Bunshaft building," Tunkey said. "If both sides participated honestly in a process where we discuss the concerns about the integrity of the building and also looked openly and with a creative spirit at what OMA and the Albright-Knox are trying to do, I believe that at least there's a possibility that we could come to some creative solution."
Buffalo-based preservationist and architect Barbara Campagna echoed Tunkey's hope for a more open process, and said the gallery should have included preservation experts earlier in the design process.
"They're just not doing the process right," said Campagna, a preservation consultant. "They need to have a really good preservation consultant who knows how to interpret what character-defining features mean, to assist them."
Concerns from Bunshaft fans recalls the controversy of 1957-58, when Buffalonians expressed opposition to Paul Schweikher's plan to modify the gallery's original building.
After releasing the plans, the gallery received a torrent of complaints. The plans called for the construction of a new building on the Hoyt Lake side of the gallery, eliminating E.B. Green's grand east steps and installing a low-lying glass structure running the length of the 1905 building.
The reaction was furious and negative. And it influenced the gallery's subsequent selection of Buffalo-born architect Bunshaft to design its 1962 building, the conservatism of which emerged as much from the public outcry of 1957 as from Bunshaft's austere style.
"The addition has the air of a compromise," said Buffalo artist Hugh Laidman at the time of Schweikher's proposal in a story by News critic Larry Griffis, "an attempt to placate the lovers of (the) traditional by hiding the addition in the guise of a pedestal, while at the same time using enough contemporary architectural clichés to appease those who favor (the) modern."
Griffis, in a 1957 story criticizing Schweikher's plan, seemed to anticipate the concerns of today's preservationists.
"A completely modern building with its own purpose and character would be an outstanding contribution to the culture of Buffalo," Griffis wrote. "It might in the future command the same protective interests being expressed by our citizenry today for the present gallery."