The Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) is located in Salt Lake City, Utah at the base of the Wasatch Mountain Range and at the intersection of the natural and built environments. The site’s history as a firing range and more recently as a utility corridor and popular trailhead made the development of the museum site a politically and environmentally sensitive undertaking. The initial design challenge was to stitch together natural and cultural worlds into a seamless, educational landscape that would promote the mission of the museum. Since any intervention on the site would be a manmade construction, the design team sought to celebrate the confluence of these two worlds, by layering the landscape interventions into zones of influence that spread outwards from the building footprint.
The site is a part of the University of Utah’s Research Park, directly adjacent to Red Butte Garden and Arboretum. A sixty-foot pipeline easement divides the site in two along the north-south axis. This easement is home to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and is heavily used by mountain bikers and hikers. In addition to parking and a vehicular drop-off/entry plaza, the south side of the museum serves a dual purpose as outdoor exhibit terraces and a transition to the natural landscape.
The challenge was to marry this cultural landscape into the surrounding natural environment. The solution was to create a camouflage pattern with the cultural landscape that is geometric, intentional and manmade at close distance but modeled, patterned and evocative of natural patterns surrounding it when viewed from a distance. In this way, the landscape can be at home in its natural surroundings and yet remain unabashedly a cultural construction. Within this designed landscape, the design team inserted opportunities for interpretation, education and reflection. Green building techniques are also employed including: rainwater capture, pervious paving, native plants and local materials in order to promote long-term sustainability.
The design team established a set of narrative principles to assist in guiding the design of the project. Those principles included: 1) By juxtaposing natural and manmade forms, each is made more apparent, vivid and meaningful; 2) Bridging the gap between art and science through metaphorical or stylized abstractions of natural features offers varied opportunities for interpretation and actively engages the user, the artist and the scientist; 3) Inherent natural material characteristics such as color, texture and form provide the most genuine expression of beauty and process and may be celebrated in subtle, but sophisticated manners; 4_ When natural diversity is allowed to flourish, the museum site will be extremely healthy, sustainable and educational.
The landscape architects developed the master plan along with site analysis, conceptual design and ultimately construction documents. As the landscape architects, we worked to merge the program to the site and its natural beauty. Included in this was the development of a way-finding system that leads visitors through the landscape and extends the museum experience beyond the walls of the building. The landscape architect set goals in each in each of the following categories; art, community, environment and economics to reach the museum’s goal, “to illuminate the natural world and humans place within it.”
Environmental goals included fostering an understanding of science as a journey of discovery and wonder through interpretative panels that focus on actual landscape features surrounding the museum. Promoting the preservation of biological diversity was also an environmental goal that was accomplished through seed gathering at the site prior to disturbance, introducing plant materials found in surrounding areas but not on the site, and reintroducing seeds in the plant matrix following construction. The crushed rock used in the gabion walls came from onsite excavation. In addition, pervious concrete paving was used in all parking areas to capture storm water and cisterns were utilized to capture water off of the roofs of the museum.
Artistic goals included showcasing Utah’s unique and extraordinary environments through interpretive features in the landscape. In order to transcend scientific disciplines and reveal the networks inherent in nature, museum exhibits extend beyond the building into the landscape and create hands-on opportunities for visitors to interpret their surroundings.
Community goals encourage new perspectives on and inspire passion for the natural world. Outdoor rooms and informal amphitheaters create performance spaces that celebrate Utah’s native peoples and cultures. The museum respects the community’s need to access the vast amounts of open space adjacent to the museum site and acts as a launching pad for outdoor exploration throughout the entire state of Utah.
Economic goals include educating the public about the consequences and opportunities available through the use of public and private resources, which empower people to make thoughtful decisions about the future.
The project is unique in the sensitivities related to the place both culturally and ecologically. The challenge and the opportunity at NHMU was to take advantage of the resources on the site and within view of the site to further the visitor’s learning experience and to reinforce the messages communicated by the formal exhibitions within the walls of the museum. In response to this we developed a series of questions that needed to be answered. How do we integrate cultural landscapes, existing ecological networks, roof systems and natural camouflage of the site to tell the story and create a memorable and sustainable site? How do we use an existing utility easement to our advantage and integrate existing circulation into a new site program? How can we transition from the building zone back to the surrounding landscape in a subtle but didactic way?
The team began the design process by establishing a set of theoretical approaches to organize and evaluate the site design and interpretive content. They created three approaches: Connections, Change and Diversity. All three are organized around natural elements based on evidence found on site or regionally. Each approach influenced the structure of the site and the required program, both practical and interpretive. The resulting forms are manmade physical representations of the site characteristics and contain elements of each of the three natural influences.
The design purposefully celebrates key views to both natural and manmade landmarks throughout the site. Their design incorporates viewfinders throughout the site as part of the museum's interpretive program to allow visitors to stop and look at fixed locations throughout the valley and the site. The team took care to include interpretive signage that highlights the site's different microclimatic conditions and informs visitors of the obvious changes from one end of the site to the other. The design highlights the diversity and complexity of the site - including the approximate 180-ft grade change, the 100-year old Gambel Oak stands and the rock outcroppings that date back to the Pleistocene period. After studying the geology of the site, the design process naturally progressed to deriving form. When faced with how to successfully merge the site to the program and building mass, the team discovered that digital terrain modeling presented opportunities to metaphorically abstract the land and site, thereby linking the two. This blurring of the line between site improvements and the undisturbed natural areas is one of the transformative accomplishments in the design process. With more dramatic landform concentrated in close proximity to the building, a more deliberate and perceivable interpretation is possible. As one moves away from the building, into the more natural parts of the site, the landform is relaxed and blended into natural landforms and plant materials, accomplishing preservation and conservation goals for the project.
With little room onsite for conventional methods of stormwater treatment, the design team employed low-impact development strategies to reduce impacts to the site. Reducing stormwater quantity, improving stormwater quality and reusing captured water for irrigation were key objectives. The team accomplished these objectives through the use of green roofs and pervious paving to reduce the amount of stormwater run-off, underground tanks to store harvested water from the roof to reuse in irrigation, and underground infiltration basins to recharge groundwater aquifers.
With a holistic understanding of the existing vegetation and ecology, the design team developed a planting design that merges natural and ornamental plants alike to reinforce the design objectives. Additionally, they chose natural materials in key areas to blend with the natural environment and to accomplish key interpretive and program-related objectives.
The Natural History Museum of Utah is a vital link between the natural and cultural worlds of the past and present and the fusion of these two worlds in the future. The master plan for the museum reflects the mediation between natural systems and cultural production and the increasing urgency for synergy and compatibility between them. The design forges this connection through use of local materials and creates broader connections with its context by integration with existing trail networks and views of the Great Salt lake, the Oquirrh mountain range, Kennecott Copper Mines, Mount Olympus and Salt Lake City.