Ennead Architects, Gillies Stransky Brems Smith, Natural History Museum of Utah

Case study: Natural History Museum of Utah

This spectacular scheme, which opened in November 2011, provides a stunning home for the Natural History Museum of Utah, as well as housing research facilities for undergraduates and graduates at the University of Utah, on the edge of Salt Lake City, USA.

The building was designed by Todd Schliemann of New York-based Ennead Architects. Schliemann and fellow partner Don Weinreich led the Ennead Design in association with David Brems and John Branson of Salt Lake City’s Gillies Stransky Brems Smith (GSBS).

The site
Located on the campus of the University of Utah, just a few miles east of downtown Salt Lake City, the museum is positioned on a seven-acre site in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, overlooking the Salt Lake Valley.

Conceived as an abstract extension of the landscape, the museum rests on terraces that step up the hill with minimal disruption to the site. At its base, board-formed concrete marks the transition from earth to the manmade.

The concept
Before the design process began, Schliemann took a journey around Utah. He explained: “I saw an extraordinarily unique landscape – one that was timelessly natural, but also very architectural. At that time it became clear that the architecture should be of the landscape and belong to the landscape.”

This ethos is clearly reflected in the building’s striking copper skin which recalls Utah’s geological and mineralogical history. It consists of 3,900m2 of copper panels with accent panels of copper-zinc alloy that enhance the subtle variegation of the material’s natural patina.

The details
Internally, the museum contains a 18m-high central space, dubbed ‘the canyon’, which divides the building into two sections and offers views across the basin.

The private north wing contains research labs, conservation labs, collection storage and administration, while the south wing houses the public exhibits. In the canyon, bridges and vertical circulation organise the visitor sequence.

With respect to the natural world it champions within, the museum has been designed to achieve LEED Gold Certification.

Weinreich outlines the sustainable measures in the project. “The artful integration of ‘green’ initiatives – incorporating the use of recycled materials, local resources, photovoltaic energy, radiant cooling and the implementation of an extensive storm water catchment and management system – underscores the museum’s respect for the natural world and human engagement.”