Photo © Jeff Goldberg / Esto

Natural History Museum of Utah

Ennead Architects

Salt Lake City

An elegantly powerful structure reflects its dramatic natural setting and the mission of the institution housed within.

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

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From the first glimpse of the $103 million Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City, the metaphor is unambiguous: The 163,000-square-foot building is both literally and figuratively rooted in the landscape. The terraced structure is anchored into its sloping site at the edge of the University of Utah campus, a few miles from downtown, while the folded and subtly canted exterior walls mimic the scrubby hillside rising behind it. But even though the references to its environment are readily recognizable, the museum holds its own as man-made object against the rugged backdrop. It is an interpretation and abstraction of nature rather than a facsimile, explains Todd Schliemann, partner at New York–based Ennead Achitects (formerly Polshek Partnership), which designed the building in association with local firm, GSBS.

The museum, which opened in November, moved from a decaying, Depression-era building in the heart of the campus to its current 17-acre site—one that appears to be the threshold of unspoiled wilderness. But although the land had never been developed for a building, it was not pristine. In the early 1900s, it had been marred when soldiers from nearby Fort Douglas used it as a firing range. More recently, major utility lines were routed through the property, along with a trailhead for a mountain-biking and hiking path.

The designers have integrated this infrastructure with the site by realigning and redefining the trailhead with gabion walls whose rock was uncovered during foundation excavation, and by camouflaging the utilities with sculptural landforms. They configured the new building as a three-bar form that steps up with the terrain. Its structure, which combines concrete shear walls and steel framing, is organized into two wings—one that supports the museum's “empirical” activities, including research, conservation, and administration; and an “interpretive” wing that houses the exhibits, says Schliemann.

The glue between the two programmatic halves, and the museum's centerpiece, is a 60-foot-tall lobby that doubles as a space for lectures and parties. It is enclosed by soft, gray board-formed concrete, warm, white-faceted drywall planes, and one glazed wall that offers sweeping views out over the city and across Salt Lake Valley. Even visitors who are unaware that this grand room has been dubbed the “canyon” will immediately understand that its form, like that of the building's exterior, has been inspired by the regional landscape. But the space can be appreciated without knowledge of its origins, since it elicits an immediate (and positive) emotional response. “We wanted an inspirational space that would be viscerally remembered,” says Schliemann. “It's a cathedral with a view.”

The simile of architecture-as-geological-formation extends to the building's exterior envelope, where horizontal standing-seam copper—mined on the opposite side of the valley and donated by the mine's parent company—covers the angular walls above the a poured-in-place concrete base. The cladding, made of three different alloys, takes on a varied patina, creating an effect similar to the striations of exposed rock cliffs. Although this skin is now different shades of brown with hints of green, its colors will continue to evolve, much like the landscape around the building where Gambel oaks, two types of maples, native sumac, and an understory of several varieties of brush, have been planted. In the autumn the foliage will turn nutty brown, vibrant orange, and red.

The route through the exhibits, which were designed by New York-based Ralph Appelbaum Associates, also takes its cues from the natural environment. Ramped walkways with ipé-plank decks and glass balustrades trace a gently ascending course that winds through the museum's 10 thematic galleries in the manner of a mountain traverse. The path leads from the lowest level displays, which showcase the region's plant and animal life over 225 million years, to the uppermost exhibition space, which focuses on the traditions of Utah's native peoples. Along the way, visitors can examine artifacts from the museum's collection of 1.2 million objects, including paleontological, archaeological, and mineralogical specimens. But museumgoers need not view the galleries in any particular order or follow a prescribed course, according to Sarah George, executive director. Instead, they can get off the elevator on any level, cross one of the bridges spanning the canyon, and explore just one section of the museum. “It was important to us that visitors be able to chose their own path,” she says.

The galleries are primarily inwardly focused, with few windows in order to protect the collections from damaging ultraviolet light. However, in a select number of carefully orchestrated locations, windows are included so that museumgoers can make connections between the displays and the world outside. For example, an exhibit exploring the evolution of the Great Salt Lake is positioned next to a window that offers views of the actual body of water off in the distance.

The small number of windows—and the resulting low-window-to-wall ratio—helps improve the building's energy performance and is one of several strategies that have put the project on track for LEED Gold certification. (For more on the envelope, see Performance Puzzle) But because site constraints dictated that most of the openings face west—an undesirable orientation from both heat-gain and conservation perspectives—the high-performance glazing includes a frit and a low-e coating. Although the treatment somewhat obscures the view of the museum's interior from its outdoor terraces, the effect enhances the building: The glazing mirrors the sky and the museum's environs, providing another reminder that the mission of the institution beyond the glass and the copper-clad walls is to reflect and interpret the natural world.

Gross square footage: 163,000

Completion Date: October 2011

Total Project cost: $103 Million

Owner: State of Utah

Ennead Architects
320 West 13th Street
New York, NY  10014
(212)807-7171 tel
(212)807-5917 fax

January 2012
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