Buffalo AKG Art Museum

Location: Buffalo, NY

Architects: OMA

The Buffalo AKG Art Museum sits at the Western edge of Delaware Park, the largest in a network of parks design by Frederick Law Olmstead in the late 19th century. This park system was (and in some instances still is) connected by a network of what Olmstead called “parkways.” It is the largest park system that Olmstead designed for any city, and still defines the city’s aspect.

For Olmstead, the park system served several goals. First, it provided urban lungs, where residents could enjoy the fresh air of tree-lined promenades and open spaces throughout the city. Secondarily, since the parks were open to all, it reinforced the mission of democracy by bringing people from different backgrounds and social strata together in a shared public space. Third, in the context of 19th century humanism, it helped not only to improve health, but through contact with the beauty of nature, to enrich the mind and cultivate the spirit, concepts that may seem antiquated today, but still resonate when you walk amidst the tall oaks, maples and elms flush with the fireworks of fall.

Given the cultural mission of the parks system, it is not surprising that the original 1905 Albright Art Gallery would be situated within it. Like the park itself, the gallery’s mission (as with most cultural institutions) was the elevation of the individual through the influence of aesthetics and experience. Also similar to the park on whose edge the institution has resided for over a century, the gallery has functioned as a social condenser, open to all, a public forum for ideas. This social aspect might be gleaned in the overtly Greek revivalist language of the original E.B Green-designed Albright building, complete with caryatids, and perhaps invoking the agora, which served as the dominant public space of ancient Greek culture.

Over time, such associations have dwindled, in part due to infrastructural changes around the museum, including the introduction of a large four-lane highway (NY 198), which continues to impact foot-traffic between Delaware Park, Hoyt Lake and Lincoln Parkway. Gordon Bunshaft’s 1962 addition, which provided access to the museum from Elmwood Avenue (on the opposite side of the museum from the park) ultimately resulted in a fissure between the museum and the park, even while outdoor public sculptures and museum adjacent tree-lined walkways gestured towards the previous association. This made the museum feel cut off and coincided with a period of internalization perhaps related to the cultural/historical moment, a time of racial and class conflict during which the city shrunk economically, ceding population to the sprawling suburbs.

The new AKG Art Museum, which incorporates both the 1905 Albright and the 1962 Bunshaft buildings, as well as a new one by Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, reconnects the museum with the park, in a gesture of inclusivity supported by the local community. Entrance is from either side of the museum, into a free open space designed by Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann called “Common Sky,” which consists of an undulating mirrored tessellated structure that concludes in an internal, off-center and asymmetrical funnel, which can be read either as a vortex, drawing the sky earthward, or as a trunk from which the sky blossoms.

Common Sky
New public space at Buffalo AKG Art Museum

Access to the collection is through the 1905 building, lighting for which has been updated to high CRI LEDs. The collection itself is presented chronologically, with the first galleries focused on 17 – 19th century art, before expanding into the early and mid-20th century Avant Garde collection for which the museum is known, spanning Impressionism, Cubism, Suprematism, Surrealism, Pop, Op, etcetera.

Transition from the 1905 building to the new Gundlach Building occurs via a serpentine, raised glass-enclosed walkway. The shifting orientation of the bridge reveals different vistas of the park, the museum complex, and the urban context, including views of the nearby Burchfield Penney Art Center, and the Romanesque Richardson Center. It is an interesting cacophony of nature and architectural styles, a microcosm of the city itself.

Sculpture at Buffalo AKG Art Museum
Sculpture at Buffalo AKG Art Museum

The Gundlach is a large, open space wrapped in glass, the geometry of which is reminiscent of a cube with faceted corners. Compared to the Albright building, whose galleries are more intimate in scale, harkening back to the tradition of salon exhibition, the galleries in the Gundlach are tall and broad, spacious and enveloping. Dedicated to more current acquisitions from more contemporary artists (with some exceptions), the Gundlach is designed for the rigors of new media and large-scale works.

New Media at AKG Art Museum
New Media at AKG Art Museum

To accommodate shifting media, Litelab provided a recessed Unistrut BusRun core sheathed in a servicing shell. The Unistrut system can accommodate 100 lbs of load between hanging points, and can be used to support installations or temporary walls. Embedded RJ-45 plugs allow for access to data infrastructures throughout the museum, either in service of new media artworks, or of surveillance cameras and sensors. Air exchange is also managed through the shell, centralizing services around the BusRun infrastructure.

Details of solutions designed for the AKG Art Museum

Litelab also developed a 6000 lumen high CRI family to use in the taller spaces of the Grundlach, including both object and wallwash fixtures. The fixtures provide even wallwashing for large-scale works, like the 33 towering Clyfford Still canvasses currently on exhibition. Object fixtures provide targeted illumination for objects and signage, including a vast ensemble of Nick Cave figures that presently dominates the largest of the Grundlach galleries.

Nick Cave at Buffalo AKG Art Museum
Nick Cave at Buffalo AKG Art Museum

What the museum and its infrastructure represent is the imbrication of systems at different scales across time, from the park system, to the network of buildings representing different approaches to the surrounding physical, social and cultural environments, opening out, looking inwards, and expanding outward again. These systems are mirrored (literally in the case of the public entry pavilion) inside the museum, where layers of spatial, material and technological systems interact with the aesthetics of different styles, movements and individual voices, even as each interact with one another through relationships of sympathy and contrast, divergence and accretion. The power of the new Buffalo AKG Museum is its potential for interaction at multiple scales, re-establishing the ethos of Olmstead’s original mission – the mental, spiritual and social health of the people of Buffalo, and reflecting it back to the park and the parkway system that connects the museum to the city.