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RPI challenge: Schenectady Museum’s front door

Better visibility sought for building

Sunday, July 22, 2012
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The front entrance to the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium is pictured on Saturday.
The front entrance to the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium is pictured on Saturday.

— A large sign on Nott Terrace points the way to the Schenectady Museum. But visitors still have difficulty finding the building, on a hill at the end of a quiet side street.

“We’d like our visibility to be better,” said Brad Lewis, president of the Schenectady Museum’s board of trustees. “We want to give people a better sense that we’re here. Nott Terrace is not a very good connector. It’s hard to see us from the road.”

Last week, the museum announced that architecture students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy will spend the fall semester designing a new entrance to the building.

The project is part of the Schenectady Museum & Suits-Bueche Planetarium’s ambitious new plan to transform itself into a new facility where students investigate science and conduct their own experiments, rather than simply looking at exhibits. The museum will receive interactive science “experiences” every year for the next five years through a partnership with the Exploratorium Museum in San Francisco, and the nonprofit Challenger Learning Center will move into the museum and offer mock space missions for children.

In 2004 the Schenectady Museum adopted a long-range, $72 million plan to build a four-story, 114,000-square-foot science and technology center. But that plan proved to be unrealistic and was ultimately abandoned.

Lewis said the museum’s new plan is on a smaller scale, but still offers an opportunity to add space by reconfiguring the entrance. “There’s room behind us,” he said. “And there’s space down the hill. [A new entrance] could be intriguingly designed and provide better access.”

Evan Douglis is the dean of the school of architecture at RPI. “We have young, emerging architects with incredible imaginations, who can think outside the box,” he said.

Lewis said Douglis is a good choice for the project because he “thinks architecture needs to be connected with what the building is being used for, its history. … I think that’s an intriguing way to look at it. It’s also a great opportunity to have a whole group of people working on this.” He said that the students will turn to the museum’s mission and history for inspiration, particularly its emphasis on showcasing the city’s rich history in science and technology, and that they will be encouraged to think big.

“There are all kinds of possibilities,” he said, noting that the Science Museum of Minnesota, in St. Paul, has a musical staircase that plays a tune when people walk on it.

“This area is very rich in talent, particularly scientific and technical talent,” Lewis said. “Part of the key in making this a technical museum is to figure out how to get people with that talent involved in our mission. [Collaborating with RPI] is an example of one of the things you can do.”

Douglis said his students will be designing a new entrance but also looking at the whole building, and will have an enormous amount of flexibility to propose additional spaces and reimagine how visitors and cars approach the museum. “The approach by car, by foot, the image of the building are critical,” he said. “How does the museum and the architecture of the museum become so compelling that it draws thousands of people into it?” One goal is to create an experience that’s memorable “from the moment you get out of the car,” he said.

“The spirit of the complex needs to be re-envisioned,” Douglis said. He said that the museum has an “incredible collection” of artifacts from General Electric and that these items will help inspire his students.

The students will spent their fall semester developing schemes for the museum and presenting them. An exhibit might follow in the spring.

“I can’t tell you exactly how it is going to turn out, but I believe design has the capacity to do amazing things,” Douglis said.

RPI’s architecture students have done similar projects for The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls and the Shaker Museum in Mount Lebanon.

“We’re trying to expose our students to local and global challenges in architecture,” Douglis said.

The Shaker Museum project resulted in an exhibit called “Material Manifestations” and a book that showcased the students’ designs, which were modern but steeped in Shaker culture. Each student chose and studied a Shaker artifact, such as a tool or piece of furniture, and used it to form their designs and models of a 10,000 square-foot archive and exhibition center.

The Hyde Collection sponsored a similar exhibit, presenting the architecture students’ conceptual designs for expanding The Hyde campus.

Douglis said The Hyde has hired an architecture firm out of Boston to revamp its campus, but that the students’ designs “opened up a discussion among the board.”

Lewis said he was impressed with the architecture student’s designs for the Shaker Museum and The Hyde.

“It was really interesting to see the extent to which the students immersed themselves,” he said.

 
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