OMA and Cooper Robertson update and expand a historic institution

Introducing the Buffalo AKG Art Museum

OMA and Cooper Robertson update and expand a historic institution

Facade of the new Jeffrey E. Gundlach Building and its uniquely contradictory gently sloping form made from angled glass. (Marco Cappelletti)

Buffalo, New York, is at last experiencing some happier days. The city has done a decent job of preserving its historical building stock—with works by Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and Frank Lloyd Wright still intact—but the renovation and revitalization of a myriad of other urban sites has picked up as well. From Silo City’s grain elevators to the Trico facilities, which once produced windshield wipers, Buffalo’s industrial relics are transforming into new centers of art and culture. The city is growing, again: It experienced population gain, as registered in the 2020 census, for the first time in 70 years, while adding some 10,000 new apartments in the last decade.

The most recent manifestation of this trend can be found in the cultural anchor of the Albright-Knox Gallery, rechristened as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum with the addition of the new Jeffrey E. Gundlach Building by OMA New York in collaboration with Cooper Robertson. For decades, AKG was composed of two iconic pieces. The original Neoclassical 1905 Robert and Elisabeth Wilmers Building, designed by Edward B. Green, is based on the Erechtheion in Athens. There are a total of 102 Ionic columns, a grand central portico, and side porches supported by caryatids. The second piece, by contrast, is the 1962 Seymour H. Knox Building by Buffalo native and SOM archduke Gordon Bunshaft, a man with some ideas about how to exhibit Giacometti and Léger, given that he had them in his house. This first addition used the same Vermont Danby marble as its 1905 counterpart but updated the museum’s programming with an open air courtyard and a crowning gray smoked glass auditorium.

The Gundlach Building contrasts with its 1905 and 1962 counterparts on the AKG campus. (Marco Cappelletti)
Lit up at night, the galleries of the new Gundlach Building glow within the faceted envelope. (Marco Cappelletti)

The Albright-Knox was well-loved, though the Bunshaft addition suffered from the common high-modernist paradox of providing excellent views of nature while literally obstructing access to it: The courtyard was built astride a former Frederick Law Olmsted–designed path into the adjacent Delaware Park, with an entrance on one side but a blank wall on the other. The museum’s tarring over the front lawn for a parking lot and removal of the original grand stairs was no help. Still, both buildings have aged well and were accepted as cultural institution canon, even if neither was quite willing to extend you a handshake.

After being selected from a shortlist of five firms, narrowed down from 50, OMA New York’s initial plan for the museum’s expansion didn’t land well: Its proposal literally sat atop the Bunschaft-era courtyard. But preservationist outcry thankfully prompted a change of course. The next challenge for OMA, then, was determining just where to place the expansion instead: To the north of the museum there are highway ramps; to the east is the sacrosanct Olmsted parkland; and to the west there is a high probability of disturbing an archaeological site with Indigenous artifacts. Eventually, a portion of the parking lot to the southwest emerged as the winning spot, although the logistical challenge here was how to connect it to the Wilmers Building at a diagonal. This was solved by the expediency of a Niemeyer-like winding bridge on pilotis, designed to slope at an ADA- and art handler–suitable angle that winds around existing oaks on the site.

Playful glass installation techniques create a funhouse viewing effect when looking at other buildings on the campus. (Marco Cappelletti)

One substantial benefit of this location is the creation of a semibounded grand lawn on the space that was once a parking lot. (Cars are now entombed in a garage beneath the grass.) The Gundlach Building now animates a new east‑west axis for museum circulation as well, both inside and out. The expansion provides a loading dock, a utility that even the wisest minds of 1905 and 1962 didn’t anticipate. AKG Director Dr. Janne Sirén quipped, “Craning Picassos and Pollocks through snowstorms is not something we really want to be doing.”

OMA’s taste for eccentric geometries and glass shrouds is well-established, and it’s up to more of the same here. Principal Shohei Shigematsu explained in conversation that the firm initially devised a simpler geometric slant of glass for the structure but eventually veered in a stranger direction to avoid anything resembling the curtain wall of an office building. The resulting Gundlach Building, made possible by billionaire Buffalo native Jeffrey Gundlach’s donation of $65 million, is now sheathed in angled glass. Overall, the capital campaign raised $230 million for the campus’s revision and expansion.

A sculptural stair is visible, from outside the Gundlach Building, traversing all gallery levels and becoming an art object itself. (Marco Cappelletti)

The addition is fronted by a large, two-story marble entrance portal rising from a plinth, both designed to echo canonical elements on the two existing buildings. It’s a formalist gesture that sits a little oddly with the remainder of the facade, characterized by its sinuous, triangulated glass: a waistcoat on a futurist. There’s something remaining of OMA’s torpedoed Chicago Lucas Cultural Arts Museum proposal here, if brought somewhat into line with local probity.

The glass is entirely a good idea. It’s basically a cloak not of invisibility but of visibility draped around a central rectilinear gallery volume inside. You can see all sorts of things from the exterior, a lively contrast to the remainder of the campus. Shigematsu explained his effort to balance the “introversion” of the broader campus and larger spirit of “closed and calm and pristine and authoritarian museums.” The addition also has a contextual inspiration, he noted, in the Crystal Palace and the architecture of botanical gardens.

Interior views of the stair on the second level, where the design becomes more of a “void” in the space. (Marco Cappelletti)
Circulation wraps visitors around the periphery of the museum, where generous glazing allows for views across the campus and lets in natural light. (Marco Cappelletti)

The glass veil is interesting in itself. A “softness” was the aim, and it was achieved thanks to a complicated structural arrangement, which suggests curves despite largely being composed of triangular panes. Shigematsu wanted “torsion,” and he achieved it.

The Gundlach’s interiors are well-thought-out and originate from a set of cruciform galleries at the center of the first floor and exhibition spaces. Shigematsu observed that “often a contemporary gallery becomes the victim of all of the infrastructure and all of the operational needs. I thought that art should always be at the core—like a building core, like an elevator core.” Where to put the core functions then? Well, at the corners: The elevator, offices, a black box theater, and loading dock are all peripherally located, leaving the galleries as the heart of the museum. Shigematsu expressed frustration over the typical dynamic of gallery walls being exterior walls, almost entirely entailing that they will be blank. This is emblematic of the age-old battle between art and the destructive effects of natural light. These center galleries set up the use of additional galleries along the glassy perimeter, so the second-floor promenade is suited to the display of art objects less sensitive to light than paintings.

A winding central staircase unifies these two conditions. Shigematsu expressed a certain tedium with “the sculptural stair becoming one of the moves that every architect does in every museum.” His aim? “To make it a little less obvious.” The stair spirals on its own to the first level, then connects to the floor slab on the second floor and spirals on its own again on the third. “The stair is not a freestanding solid stair on the second level.” Shigematsu noted. “It looks like a void instead of a stair, so it has an ambiguity of an object versus a nonobject.” OMA’s was also an effort to unite means of ascent. The elevator lobby is right next to the stair, not down a hallway to the left, as is often the case. Both are deliberately part of the same spatial experience, not a principal tier for the young and mobile in one place and a back up for everyone else, somewhere else. Notably, the elevator shaft is also envisioned as a display for art.

The galleries that constitute the center of the building are spacious and technically sophisticated. Partition walls don’t quite touch the floor; instead, they hover ever so slightly. There’s a double-height space on the ground floor, an easy access to the promenade on the second, and an unobstructed view to the city’s downtown on the third. Red-oak flooring patterns are variable and patterned in concentric circles on the lower floors; the boards gradually widen as you ascend, and large single planks mark each doorway. Flooring treatment also extends beyond just the new galleries: Cracked marble flooring in much of the Wilmers Building was also replaced with red oak to provide a seamless experience.

View of the Sculpture Terrace with Ursula von Rydingsvard’s Blackened Word, 2008 (Marco Cappelletti)

In addition to introducing new, world-class design to the Buffalo institution, a major goal of OMA’s expansion was to revamp the AKG’s programming, both physically within the museum spaces and metaphorically in terms of the institution’s relationship with the community. These goals were addressed most directly in the reimagination of the Knox Building’s courtyard and auditorium, as well as the education spaces. The courtyard was formerly surrounded by administrative and donor spaces; now, the perimeter spaces have shifted to public use with these areas turned into a cafe, gift shop, and Creative Commons. The last of these is sponsored by Lego in its first collaboration with a museum, one of a range of Scandinavian elements that Sirén, a Helsinki native, has brought along.

The second-floor Bunshaft auditorium was refurbished along precisely Bunshaftian lines and looks excellent. OMA chose to convert its lower floor into an education and community wing, with movable partitions respecting the Bunshaft original. This represents a real improvement on prior educational facilities. Sirén explained, “We had two classrooms that looked like a dungeon. In Finland, we would not put anyone in such a classroom.”

The newly reimagined covered courtyard entrance. (Marco Cappelletti)

Sirén also spoke of a desire to engage more closely with the community. “We built two things at the same time: One of them is a physical building and the other is our house of ideas. Our idea was a museum that was open for everyone and not just a small number of privileged individuals.” His desire was to create “a welcoming place” that is more easily accessible. (To that end, the Knox Building will not charge an admission fee.) The museum also sought to improve links with the city by creating a leadership-level director of community engagement position. To provide art for those who might not be inclined to visit, an “art truck” has been commissioned, transporting art beyond the gallery walls to support the museum’s Public Art Initiative.

The abiding problem with the Bunshaft courtyard was simply being located in one of the snowiest cities in the United States. It was splendid in theory—and in the summer months—but given the museum’s decades of difficulty in actually using it as a space for hanging art and gathering, OMA’s solution to cap it is pragmatic and agreeable. The peristyle courtyard has a new ceiling that’s decidedly non-Bunshaftian in fashion, but results in an intriguing dialogue. Previously, the courtyard had a single tree, another trapping of a modernist repurposing of nature as sculpture at its essence. Now, it has been replaced by Common Sky, an arboreal installation by Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann of Studio Other Spaces, which features a far-from-natural but very fun canopy of acoustic panels covered in reflective skin extending over the space beneath an undulating dome. They also added a second entrance facing Delaware Park, restoring the original Olmsted link between museum and park.

The Ralph Wilson Town Square and Common Sky, 2022, by Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann of Studio Other Spaces. (Marco Cappelletti)

Sirén spoke of a prime interest in restoring this connection: “How do you take down barriers from entering a museum? First of all you make it so easy to come in that it’s almost like you are slipping in; you don’t even notice that you’ve entered. It’s free, there’s no one at a desk. If you want to just take a shortcut from east to west, you can do that.”

Let’s not forget the art. The AKG’s collection is strong in many regards, but particularly in abstract expressionism. Ellsworth Kelly, Gene Davis, Richard Hunt, and Tony Ausler have come out of the vaults, and 33 Clyfford Still pieces are on display in the inaugural exhibition, Clyfford Still: A Legacy for Buffalo.

Common Sky from within the courtyard, beneath the “canopy” protecting the space from the elements. (Marco Cappelletti)
Detail of Common Sky (Marco Cappelletti)

An exhibition of recent acquisitions also showcases pieces by Nick Cave, Ragna Bley, Tiffany Chung, and more. One Gundlach gallery is named after Marisol, the Venezuelan American Pop art polymath. The AKG was the first museum to acquire her work, and she repaid this favor by donating her estate to the museum; an exhibition is coming next year. Other new notables include installation pieces that activate new and unexpected display spaces, like Cornelia Firelei Báez’s Chorus of the Deep: The aqueous glass tile mosaic in the new courtyard literally shines. And a Miriam Bäckström tapestry is even being installed at the museum’s garage entrance, an admirable use of a space most would ignore.

Third-floor gallery works by Tiffany Chung, Martha Jungwirth, Simone Leigh, and Matt Connors. (Marco Cappelletti)

Museum expansions are intrinsically tricky. The job is always to respect your elders without parroting, and plenty of expansions fail on one or both counts. OMA’s work is ultra-2023 in character, and yet the project does reflect a nuanced attention to what was there and what wasn’t. “I think that modernism was all about flexibility” Shigematsu stated, “but the 1905 building is all about spatial character. Both are important, and we need to embrace both. We’re not into compromising flexibility, but we don’t want to make a gallery that’s the same everywhere either. In a subtle way we’re trying to inject a spatial specificity to the place.” By this count, OMA’s new Buffalo AKG genuinely succeeds.

Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn.


  • Design architect: OMA/Shohei Shigematsu
  • Architect of record: Cooper Robertson
  • Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates
  • Structural engineering: Arup
  • Electrical engineering/MEPFP/Telecommunications: Buro Happold
  • Civil engineering: Wendel
  • Lighting design: Arup
  • Gallery lighting: Litelab
  • AV/Acoustics: Jaffe Holden
  • Graphic Design (Signage/wayfinding): Wkshps with Once-Future Office
  • Facade consultant: Thornton Tomasetti
  • General contractor: Gilbane
  • Geotech: McMahon & Mann Consulting Engineers
  • Historic Preservation: Preservation Studios
  • Vertical transportation: VDA Elevator & Escalator Consulting
  • Town Square Roof, Common Sky: Studio Other Spaces – Olafur Eliasson and Sebastian Behmann
  • Metal/glass curtain wall: The Roschmann Group
  • Moisture barrier: Grace
  • Exterior marble: Vermont Quarries
  • Glass: Glasbel
  • Entrances: Blasi, Schuco
  • Metal doors: Steelcraft
  • Roofing: SBS, Soprema
  • Waterproofing: Grace, Suprema
  • Insulation: Rockwool
  • Acoustical ceilings: Armstrong
  • Paints and stains: Sherwin Williams
  • Plastic laminate: Formica
  • Solid surfacing: Corian
  • Special surfacing: 3 Form
  • Floor and wall tile: Daltile, Porcelanosa
  • GFRG: Formglas
  • Metal ceiling: Lindner
  • Furniture: Hay
  • Upholstery: Kvadrat
  • Lighting controls: Lutron
  • Water closets: Duravit
  • Urinals: Toto
  • Lavatories and faucets: Lacava