Architect Jeanne Gang on soaring Gilder Center design

It’s fairly rare when a venerable, beloved institution like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City undergoes a major, multiyear expansion that makes both critics and the public happy.

Somehow, that’s what Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Jeanne Gang, one of the world’s leading architects, managed to pull off at the museum’s new Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation with her architecture and urban design firm, Studio Gang.

The $465 million center, which opened in May, added six floors and 230,000 square feet for new exhibition galleries, classrooms, a library and theater, an insectarium, and a conservatory where 1,000 butterflies fly freely. With a dramatic, canyon-like atrium that snakes upward and looks as if it was carved from ancient river rock, the New York Times declared the Center a “spectacular” example of “poetic” public architecture that was “destined to be an instant heartthrob and colossal attraction.”

Gang’s colleague Gary Hilderbrand, the Peter Louis Hornbeck Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture and chair of the department of landscape architecture at the Design School, and his firm Reed Hilderbrand, concurrently designed major improvements to areas of the adjacent Theodore Roosevelt Park.

The Gazette spoke with Gang, a professor in practice of architecture at Design School, about the project and how climate change is shaping her practice. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jeanne Gang.

“We wanted to get people super excited about exploration and discovery,” Jeanne Gang said of the Gilder Center project. “I started thinking of landscapes that make you feel that way and looked at different kinds of natural formations in geology and researched how they’re made.”

Photo by Marc Olivier Le Blanc

GAZETTE: What were the museum’s primary goals for this project and what were the philosophies or ideas behind some of the key design choices you and your team made to accomplish those goals?

GANG: The American Museum of Natural History has always been an educational institution, not just for schoolchildren but also for adults and teachers. They have a Ph.D. program, too. It’s almost like a university, but for everyone of all ages. The museum wanted to support and highlight their educational mission as well as the breadth of their expertise.

Most of the exhibitions and collections on display are focused on a certain branch of natural history, like dinosaurs, gems and minerals, or earth and space. This is the first time they’ve built something that shows the extent of their collections, including ones that they’ve never been able to display before, like insects, and how they are used for scientific research. They really wanted to do something that would bring different aspects of their mission together, especially given that science education in the U.S. ranks lower than you would expect.

In addition to new collections and exhibition spaces, the Gilder Center includes multiple classrooms, learning laboratories, an expanded research library, and an immersive theater experience.

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