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Design of Shanghai Museum Reflects Natural Environs

Exterior rendering of the spiraling shaped Shanghai Natural History Museum, which was inspired by a nautilus shell
The spiraling shape of the Shanghai Natural History Museum was inspired by a nautilus shell. © Perkins+Will

The design of the new Shanghai Natural History Museum recalls that of classic Chinese gardens, as well as such natural shapes as a nautilus.

May 14, 2013—In classic Chinese gardens rock formations, water elements, trees, plants, structures, and pathways are meticulously arranged to form miniature scenes that are meant to reflect the ideal harmony between man and nature. It’s a concept that has evolved over thousands of years, and it continues to inspire designers today. Indeed, its influence is seen in the elegant spiraling shape and earthy architectural features of the new Shanghai Natural History Museum.

Under construction in Shanghai’s Jing’an district, the museum will provide contemporary space for the existing Shanghai Natural History Museum, which is located in downtown Shanghai in a 1920s-era building of traditional British style that served as the city’s cotton exchange during that period of time. It is one of the largest natural history museums in China, and one of its main attractions is a 150-million-year-old dinosaur skeleton from the province of Sichuan.

As part of ongoing efforts to develop cultural attractions, Shanghai officials launched a design competition for the new museum in 2008. After short-listing approximately a dozen entries, the officials eventually awarded the project to Perkins+Will, an international architecture firm headquartered in Chicago. The architects say their design won because it places most of the museum below grade so as not to interfere with the Jing’an Sculpture Park, a 66,000 m2 public art space. The museum is being constructed within that park. “It’s quite a large facility, and if we put all of the space aboveground, it would have been . . . a massive object, which would have been somewhat out of scale with the sculpture park,” says Ralph Johnson, a design principal of Perkins+Will. “What they liked about our design is it integrated with the park.” 

Exterior rendering of the Shanghai Natural History Museum which is designed to blend in with the surrounding sculpture park

The Shanghai Natural History Museum is designed to blend in
with the surrounding sculpture park. © Perkins+Will

The 50,000 m2 museum recalls the spiraling shape of a nautilus shell, which is considered one of the purest geometric forms in nature. The museum has three levels and a mezzanine above grade, and below grade there are two large exhibit levels and other mezzanines as the structure spirals to a depth of 20 m. The levels above grade provide space for the entry corridor, office facilities, and an IMAX theater; all of the primary exhibit halls are below grade. The museum is founded on piles, and beams span the distance between them, forming a bridgelike structure over a new subway line that is being constructed directly below. “They initially were going to build the museum first and come back later and tunnel under the museum,” says Bill Doerge, the international practice director of Perkins+Will and the director of the museum project for the firm. “Then at some point they decided to put the subway line and the station in ahead of the museum.” That work delayed the museum’s construction, but now everything appears to be progressing smoothly, the architects say.

The museum’s main exterior focal point is a Chinese garden with an oval perimeter that begins at grade and then cascades down with waterfalls, rock formations, plants, and trees to the building’s lower levels. A path leads visitors through the landscape, where they can reflect on the connection between man and nature in much the same way they would in a traditional garden. “It’s this microcosm of nature, recalling in an abstract way the tradition of Chinese garden design,” Johnson says. “So that became the central focus and then around that the facades grew.”

Exterior rendering of the Shanghai Natural History Museum which features a different type of cladding on each of its sides

The Shanghai Natural History Museum features a different type of
cladding on each of its sides. © Perkins+Will

The museum features a different type of facade on each of its four sides. Like the shape of the building itself, all of the facades were inspired by themes found in nature. One facade is vegetated to symbolize the forests of China, another is made of stone to recall the earth’s strata, and a third is glazed to draw attention to the sun. But the most unusual and structurally challenging facade is the one within the building’s spiral, which is at once curved and conical. A considerable amount of computer modeling was required to realize the form. Adding to its complexity, the facade is multilayered, comprising concrete, glass, and steel arranged in a cellular pattern that recalls the cells of nature, including humanity. Johnson describes the facade as “a multilayered cellular structure, which has that symbolism, but also it’s the south exposure, so it provides sun protection.” He adds that the wall extends to the museum’s lower levels, allowing light to penetrate into the adjacent circulation corridors but preventing it from reaching the exhibit spaces, which are highly controlled.

In addition to its four wall facades, the museum has a fifth facade in the form of a vegetated roof. This facade collects rainwater and ties the museum back to the park, especially when viewed from above. “There are a lot of high-rises around it in all directions, so people will look down on the museum,” Johnson explains. “So the roof is really a facade in this case, with all of these people looking down from their condos.” The roof’s role as an extension of the park is also emphasized by the fact that visitors can access it along the edge of the spiral and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the miniature garden below.

Despite early setbacks, construction of the museum’s shell is nearly complete, and the building is expected to be finished early next year. While it remains unclear when the museum will finally open, the architects hope the design will further the museum’s educational purpose by reflecting not only natural history but also the history of Chinese culture. “There are so many natural history museums, but this one is unique to its culture,” Johnson says. “It’s not just a natural history museum; it’s a Chinese natural history museum.”


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