OMA's AKG Buffalo Art Museum in Abitare


Neo-Deco: The extension of Buffalo's art museum, the Gundlach Building designed by OMA partner Shohei Shigematscu, is a brightly lit polyhedral pavilion inspired by the glass structures of the turn of the 19th century. Its attractive form conveys a sense of openness and inclusiveness. Abitare 628, Oct. 2023. 

Buffalo, New York’s main art museum originally reflected the city at its height of power and importance as the late 19th century grain shipment capital of the world, connected by the Erie Canal to vast productive farmlands in the middle of the United States. The second biggest city in New York state, after New York City, culturally, Buffalo has the feeling of a medium-size midwestern Rust Belt town, its local culture amplified by a major university, the vitality of new immigrant groups, and a long legacy of experimental art scenes. With the opening of the Gundlach Building, a $195 million expansion by OMA-NY principle and co-director Shohei Shigematsu, the Buffalo AKG Art Museum has added an energetic irregular marble-and-glass polyhedron inspired by turn of the century bridge engineering to the museum’s historical archive of buildings. 

The addition, along with a new sculptural pavilion by Olafur Eliasson and renovation of its 1962 modernist addition by SOM principal Gordon Bunshaft, is meant to signal inclusiveness and openness and put more of its permanent collection on display. Wrapped in triangular panels of prismatic green-hued glass, the new structure adds a stylish yet restrained contemporary image to Buffalo, offering visitors a heightened aesthetic and spatial experience that recalls the vitrined world expo palaces and trains halls of the late 19th century. 

Shigematsu studied how the volume of galleries could be made transparent to give a sense of openness from the street and provide a promontory view of the vast greenery of Delaware Park, a 1.4 km landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1868. The demand for low-light conditions to protect artworks in museums tends to produce relatively inscrutable buildings. By adding exterior circulation corridors and a sculpture terrace around the perimeter of the galleries, which are then sheathed in glass to accommodate the cold Buffalo climate, Shigematsu imagined an unusually transparent facade. The steel mullions also serve as infrastructural support for the galleries, carrying sprinklers, track lighting, art hanging capacity, and shading. 

The Shigematsu-designed structure is just one part of an expansive campus masterplan, initiated in 2012 by Snøhetta and overseen since 2016 by OMA-NY. One of the more spectacular pieces opening this summer is a new sculptural commission by Berlin-based Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, Common Sky, a spiraling funnel of reflective and transparent glass that is partly open to the sky and partly refracts back into the space. It doubles as a pavilion replacing an underused exterior courtyard, easing circulation between the buildings. It will undoubtedly be a popular Instagram-friendly artwork attracting a wide audience. 

The redevelopment accomplishes a large number of goals for the institution. It removes a surface parking lot and restores the grand staircase and great lawn of the original 1905 neoclassical building by Edward B. Green. The 1962 addition by Bunshaft has been converted into a public building for educational programs with five classroom studios and a cafe. The copper rooftop and facade of the Greek Revival building needed restoration, and they substituted wood for cracked marble floors throughout its galleries. Shigematsu also designed a mirrored glass connective corridor between the old and new buildings, which snakes through a preserved grove of oak trees. Apart from that, the project replaced the mechanical systems of the entire campus and installed an underground parking lot.

The irony is that, like every other museum, the AKG campus renovation to make it more inclusive was funded in large part by a $43 million donation by Jeffrey Gundlach, a Buffalo native who made a fortune as an investment banker in Los Angeles betting against municipal bonds. It’s merely stating the obvious—but it really must be stated, though it’s not at all exclusive to this particular museum—that the way to actually make the culture inclusive is to adequately tax wealth and write public policy to make the society itself more equitable.