Designed by Todd Schliemann of Ennead Architects, the building sits on a breathtaking 17-acre site overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, its commanding profile and copper skin blending seamlessly into the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range. Partners Schliemann and Don Weinreich led the Ennead design team, in association with David Brems and John Branson of GSBS (Gillies Stransky Brems Smith) of Salt Lake City. Located on the campus of the University of Utah, just a few miles east of downtown Salt Lake City, the Museum is positioned literally and figuratively at the threshold of nature and culture. Together with the interpretive exhibit program and landscape design, the architecture is intended to create an inspirational visitor experience and sponsor curiosity and inquiry. Mr. Schliemann has designed a building that embodies the Museum’s mission to illuminate the natural world and the place of humans within it. The building provides a new home and much-needed space for the Museum’s extraordinary collection of artifacts, housing advanced research facilities in support of both undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Utah. ‘The natural scientists’ interpretive art makes natural history real to us. It breaks down the complex natural world into many parts and then reassembles it so we have the means to understand. In a similar way,’ says Schliemann, ‘I have tried with my architecture to interpret the extraordinary landscape of Utah and how people engage it – both in the past and in the present.’ Conceived as an abstract extension and transformation of the land, the Museum rests on a series of terraces that step up the hill and lay along the contours of the site with minimal disruption to the adjacent natural landscape. At its base, board-formed concrete marks the transition from the earth to the manmade. Constituting the skin of the building, 42,000 square feet of copper panels recall Utah’s geological and mineralogical history. Accent panels of copper-zinc alloy enhance the subtle variegation of the copper’s natural patina. ‘Before design began, I took a journey around the state of Utah. I call it my epiphany moment – one that unfolded over the course of a week. 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 – belong to the landscape. I also saw how people had been engaging that land for millennia. Therein lies the architectural inspiration behind the design – one that interprets the profound dialogue between culture and nature in Utah,’ says Schliemann. Inside, the heart of the Museum is a voluminous, sixty-foot-high central public space – the Canyon – which divides the building programmatically into an empirical (north) wing and an interpretive (south) wing and provides access to both. Spaces in the north wing support formal scientific exploration and an objective understanding of our world: these include research laboratories, conservation labs, collection storage and administration. The south wing houses exhibits, whose narratives interpret the Museum’s extraordinary collections and guide the public through an exploration of the delicate balance of life on earth and its natural history. In the Canyon, bridges and vertical circulation organize the visitor sequence; views south across the basin expand the museumgoer experience; shafts of sunlight penetrate the apex, suffusing the space with natural light; and a grand vertical scale uplifts and inspires.
Intended to play a seminal role in enhancing the public’s understanding of Earth’s resources and systems as well as be a model for responsible and environmentally sensitive development, the Museum is designed to achieve LEED Gold certification. Says Weinreich, ‘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 of the past, present and future of this region and the world.’