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Editorial: A stunning compromise

In the game of golf, a mulligan is when you get a free second chance to execute a shot after the first one goes astray. It’s not really part of the rules, but is something that’s done among friends.

Directors of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery took a mulligan with plans for the $155 million expansion of Buffalo’s signature museum. After an initial design plan that would have radically transformed the gallery’s 1962 Gordon Bunshaft building drew the wrath of preservationists, gallery officials listened. After consulting with local and national preservation experts, the architectural design firm OMA came up with a new plan, unveiled last Monday.

To use another golf analogy, this time they hit a solid shot right up the middle.

The plan, conceived by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, will add a dramatic third building on the museum grounds’ northwest edge. The building will be transparent and in the shape of a ziggurat, a rectangular tower from ancient Mesopotamia. A curving, transparent bridge is to connect the new structure to E.B. Green’s neoclassical 1905 building.

The plan was created after months of deliberations and discussions among the designers, preservation consultants and Albright-Knox officials. It won unanimous approval Monday night by the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, the gallery’s board.

As Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén said, “Architecture is an iterative process.” Going back to the drawing board produced a stronger plan, one that is checking most of the boxes for all concerned. And there will be more iterations to come as planning and fundraising continue.

Art observers praise the new plan’s creation of a campus setting for the museum, with the addition of the north building. The campus means things will be more spread out, which translates to more walking for visitors. The original design created a more dense footprint, what Michael Tunkey of Cannon Design called “a building on top of a building.” Tunkey said that convenience would have come “at a huge expense” to the architectural integrity of the Bunshaft addition.

Shigematsu’s new plan helps solve logistical concerns, by: doubling the amount of prime viewing space for art works, to 48,000 square feet; utilizing a bridge to get art in and out of the museum, rather than employing a crane; and expanding the availability of parking with an underground lot.

Best of all, the redesign is firmly aligned with the museum’s goals of integrating the campus with Olmsted’s Delaware Park and making the museum more inclusive and accessible. The sculpture garden in the Bunshaft building will be covered and opened to the public as “an indoor public square.” The campus will also restore 2 acres of outdoor green space.

The museum wants to shake any perception that its appeal is only to those who can afford yearly memberships. Sirén said one-third of the space will be available to the public without buying an admission ticket.

No doubt there will be some who quibble with the Albright-Knox’s expansion plan, but preservationists have the satisfaction of knowing their voices were heard.

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