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Albright Knox and the Star-chitect Conundrum: The Process That Should Make You Worry

The Albright Knox Gallery (AK) held its third public meeting last Monday night to discuss concepts and gather ideas for a planned expansion of the venerable museum.  The current gallery complex, composed of three connected buildings, is only able to display a small fraction of its collection. The Gallery has been discussing options for expansion for several years now, but has recently announced the official start of planning and fund-raising for the project.

I believe planning will include a search for an architect to design the expansion. Two of the three buildings in the complex can be considered legitimate master pieces of architecture, which set a very high bar for any future additions. The task of adding space to the AK will be fraught with great risk but will also offer the potential for an incredible addition to Buffalo’s cultural legacy.

A few years back the AK commissioned a brief schematic study of expansion possibilities from Gluckman Mayner  Architects.   A look through their portfolio reveals a very accomplished firm with work that includes design of many well-known museums such as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Founder Richard Gluckman is from Buffalo and is a graduate of UB. In this video interview, Gluckman talks about the AK and credits it and Buffalo’s grain elevators for his early education in architecture and ongoing inspiration in his work. Gluckman’s firm prepared two concepts for expansion.  One scheme focused on expansion on the Elmwood / Delaware Park campus.  The Second scheme explored the idea of creating a second distinct museum building inside the old DL&W train sheds above the Downtown NFTA transit car maintenance facility.  This location, at the foot of Main Street, is a very interesting option, but is probably a non starter for reasons not germane  to this story.  The DL&W concept is quite interesting and it would skirt any issues involved with expanding onto an architectural masterwork.   That said, Gluckman’s concept for expanding at the existing Elmwood campus was perfectly awful.  From what I could see in the few images released, the scheme aped the exiting buildings as well as the surrounding park, grabbing for attention like the person pushing their face to the front and center of a selfie or like the loud mouth at the party who only cares to hear their own voice.  The image below shows a spaceship like block pushing uncomfortably into the park, demanding all the attention. The elegantly subtle Gordon Bunshaft addition from the 1960s is obliterated. Hopefully this exercise will serve as a caution flag for the museum as they move forward.

Cities are made of mostly everyday background buildings spiced with a sprinkling of exuberant landmark buildings. The best cities are composed as a well proportioned balance of these two types of buildings.  Museums are perfect specimens for contributing to the stock of landmarks. Today, unfortunately, many architects approach every building as a “look at me” landmark.  Mostly they succeed in creating something you don’t want to look at.  In the case of the AK, creating a new major landmark building is a legitimate exercise.  The problem is that it already is a landmark and any addition threatens to ruin what is arguably already in perfect architectural balance.  The AK has said it will bring in a world-class architect for design of the expansion and has already been working the internationally known architect Snohetta since 2013 to plan the process. With heavy pressure to make a statement and do the right thing with regard to the existing buildings, will the museum try too hard to create that perfect new landmark addition?

Hiring an internationally known architectural star does not guaranty a good result.  It may in fact enhance odds for an architectural disaster. Internationally known architects have been around for centuries going back to the likes of Paladio, Brunelleschi, Inigo Jones, and Ledoux among many others.  More recent history includes designers like Frank Lloyd Wright, McKim Mead and White, LeCorbusier, Philip Johnson, and Mies van der Rohe.  This early group laid the groundwork for the internationally famous architects we now nickname  Starchitect .  The moniker can be used in a complimentary or derogatory way. The starchitect phenomenon has been around for a while, but may have kicked into high gear when the Guganheim completed its museum in Bilbao Spain. Since the 1997 completion of the exuberantly sculptural building designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, cities, companies, and especially major cultural institutions across the globe have clamored to commission buildings which attract the kind of star power attention that came to the Guggenheim Bilbao.  The success of this museum in Spain and the new wealth brought to the city was quickly dubbed “the Bilbao effect”. Everyone wanted to replicate the Bilbalo effect. Few have succeeded. The problem is that many of the starchitect designed buildings that followed have been massively expensive giant sculptures designed by the famous architect to glorify the famous architect.

Many of the starchitect designed museums to follow Bilbao overpower the art and everything else around them, often trampling the finances of their benefactors in the process. In a recent example, the Cooper Union design school commissioned an elaborate new building for its Manhattan campus designed by starchitect Thom Mayne.  The well-respected college was established in to give tuition free education.  After recent financial problems the school has started charging tuition.  Many blamed the giant $175,000,000 cost of the new building as a major source of this financial trouble. Will the AK follow a starchitect down a financial rabbit hole in search of architectural glory?

Here is an interesting story from the Atlantic focusing on a recent competition for design of the Guggenheim in Helsinki.  The story provides a critique of the pitfalls and questionable results of the competition.  Also included is a large matrix of the first phase entries in the competition. Take a look at the matrix.  The pile of architectural masturbation (pardon my French)will give you a good sample of what I am talking about. Finalists in the competition have recently been published here.

A film, titled “The Competition” directed by Madrid architect Angel Borrego Cubero, also illustrates the fallacy of the starchitect / architectural competition process, a process that the AK could possibly use.  The documentary follows the invited group of the architectural super stars, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Dominique Perrault, Zaha Hadid, and Norman Foster and the development of their designs as they attempt to win the commission for a new museum in the tiny European country of Andorra (yes it is a real place). The trailer alone reveals the farce of the thing as starchitects play with arbitrary abstract shapes and berate their staff with arrogant insults.  All of the designs seen in the film are absurd and you can sense that the starchitects know this. Nothing has yet come of the competition which was held in 2008.

So how does the AK navigate this architectural mine field?  Will we hear the familiar names of Calatrava, Norman Foster, Zaha Hdid, Rem Koohaas, Thom Mayne, Jean Nouvel, Peter Zumthor batted around as possible designers for the AK expansion?  Of these Zumthor would be the only one who would give me a modicum of comfort.  The search for an architect does not have to lead to disaster and design competitions can lead to the right designer.  The new Greatbatch Pavilion at the Martin House museum in Buffalo resulted from a well-managed competition, which generated five quite nice concepts.  The winning scheme, in my opinion the best of the five, was designed by Toshiko Mori.  This competition eschewed the major names in favor of  young design firms which were considered to be on the rise. Would this be a better course for the AK?

Guggenheim Bilbao

So AK, do you hire the great quarterback famous for past glories or do you find the future super star before anyone else.  Either way you can end up a winner but the risk of failure these days is very very high. Cross your fingers on this one. It will be the most important architectural commission in Buffalo in generations with an impact lasting for generations.


 Guggenheim Bilbao image is from From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository 



Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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