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Albright-Knox expansion on course to pass preservation hurdles

In 2017, after critics came out in force against the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's plan to create a grand plaza out of its low-key courtyard, gallery leaders and architects retreated to the drawing board.

Together with the consulting firms Preservation Studios and PBMW, the New York State Office of Historic Preservation and a subcommittee of the Buffalo Preservation Board, the gallery's architecture firm OMA hashed out a new plan that sought to address preservationists' concerns.

The result, a radically different scheme featuring a new building on the north side of the campus and a swooping ceiling of mirrored glass enclosing the gallery's existing courtyard, is on the verge of approval from state and local preservation authorities.

The Buffalo Preservation Board on Thursday heard a 45-minute presentation from Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén and architects from OMA and the structural engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti about the project. The board approved all aspects of the project aside from the new north building, which will come up for a final vote at the next meeting of the board on May 2.

Barring last-minute objections, it is expected to pass. The State Historic Preservation Office is also expected to issue a letter of support for the project.

"We have extended the process and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to make this just so, just so that it meets the secretary’s standards," Sirén said Thursday, referring to the Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic preservation that the gallery is required to follow. "That has been our objective, and that is why we have spent a year and a half longer than we anticipated on this process."

Sirén noted during the meeting that "from no bedroom do you get a clear shot at this new building," adding that it preserves sightlines toward the gallery's existing buildings and is well-camouflaged by tree cover in the neighborhood. Renderings from the gallery's submission to the board, meant to emphasize the building's low profile, show nearly imperceptible slivers of the new structure peeking through leaves and emerging from behind other structures from various angles.

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A rendering shows a new mirrored and clear glass roof created by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's current courtyard. (Image via Albright-Knox Art Gallery)

While Olafur Eliasson's proposed glass covering for Gordon Bunshaft's 1962 courtyard has elicited some negative reactions from local and national preservationists and writers, they do not seem likely to affect its chances for implementation at the state or local level.

Gregory Delaney, a clinical assistant professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo who specializes in architectural history, said he has concerns about the way the Eliasson's glass sculpture blocks the view from the courtyard of Gordon Bunshaft's 1962 building and E.B. Green's original 1905 building.

"I think it fundamentally still destroys the essence of what’s so strong about that space," he said. "I would say that I am very skeptical that they can pull it off in a way that it won’t just basically look awful in a matter of a few years."

"Because what every Gordon Bunshaft masterpiece needs is a disco ceiling," architecture critic Alexandra Lange wrote on Twitter after the new renderings of Eliasson's "Common Sky" were released. "I might have to lie down."

Shasti O'Leary Soudant, an artist who has worked with the gallery's public art program in the past, praised the piece for its dual potential to satisfy self-seekers and create a genuine sense of wonder among visitors.

"It’s pretty grand, and I’m going to be interested to see how it works," said Soudant, who considers Eliasson an inspiration for her own work. "We need those things that make us smile and make us feel childlike, and he’s very good at that."

News Staff Reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this report.

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