An interactive bog-themed natural history museum for Aarhus

2015

The current Aarhus Natural History Museum is an aging institution tucked away on campus at Aarhus University. The building itself is unassuming, a copy of the many yellow-bricked buildings that surround it. A single large space on the main floor serves as a rotating exhibition space while the permanent exhibits have not been refreshed in what feels like decades.

This project proposed the construction of a new natural history museum at Mølleparken, a central location set against the backdrop of the Aarhus river and ARoS museum. The site was previously home to the Aarhus Library, which was relocated to a new building at the harbour. One option is for the new natural history museum to occupy the library building and expand on it through a renovation project, but there is also the possibility to use the expansive green space in front of the library as the location for a new building.

Mølleparken, Aarhus

Site of the old Aarhus Library (background) and the proposed site for a new natural history museum

Program

A century ago, bogs accounted for 25% of the Danish landmass. Today, this number has dwindled to 2-3%. For a habitat that takes thousands of years to form, this is an alarming change. What happened? In the last one hundred years, farmers and developers have drained bogs in order to harvest the rich peat soil as a fuel source. Because of this, Denmark no longer has any fully intact raised bogs left. Raised bogs are the most commonly occurring type of bog throughout Europe and are characterized by a raised appearance on the landscape, due to the build-up of peat over thousands of years. This decline has occurred as well in the rest of Europe, making bogs an increasingly endangered habitat.

The new Natural History Museum in Mølleparken focuses on Denmark's vanishing bogs and why their conservation is important. Visitors are given an intimate look into the habitat and structure of bogs that they could not see in nature, while the architecture frames a reconstructed bog habitat on site. The building performs for visitors through a series of interactive spaces that communicate information in the exhibits. Through these methods, content is presented in a way that creates a personalized connection for each visitor and assists them in exploring the different topics of bog habitats and the stories these unique habitats have to tell.

The argument for interactive architecture

Traditionally, architecture has been a one-sided experience: the architect designs a static space and we, as inhabitants experience its affect on us through an altered spatial experience. This method of building suggests the creation of spaces with one unified spatial condition that is meant to satisfy all, despite the wide and varied ways in which people experience their surroundings. If we instead make conscientious decisions to design environments that can adapt to the needs of its inhabitants, we create spaces that bring people much closer to architecture, allowing it to play a more significant role in our social interactions.

Architectural design

It was crucial that the new natural history museum avoided the presentation of habitats as collections of mounted and catalogued objects behind glass as these arrangements offer nothing to enhance interactions between visitors and the exhibits beyond the visual level. The new museum is experience-oriented and eliminates these traditional physical barriers in order to create personalized connections for each visitor to the museum.

The spatial diagram above is arranged around a bog, allowing the visitor to experience the different exhibitions while being able to see the bog at the same time. In this way, the bog would lend context to the exhibits.

In researching different building types that would suit the creation of a bog-themed natural history museum, I was attracted to the round 'holes' found in Japanese architecture firm SANAA’s Rolex Learning Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland. I envisioned round bogs inhabiting these holes, with the building encompassing the bogs.

The shape of the new museum was created as a horizontal plane that gently dipped one level underground. Central to the form was a large circular cut-out open to the exterior that contained a recreated bog habitat that visitors could see from inside the museum and from outside on the museum grounds. The form ensured that the majority of the space was always in view of the bog, which was on the same level as the majority of the exhibition content.

Axonometric site view. The old library building is to the left

 

Combined floor plan showing the main level and lower level and spatial programming

Interactive exhibit

The lower level of the museum features an interactive exhibit of reactive fabric 'cells' that expand and contract when touched. The idea for including an interactive exhibit in the museum came from wanting to explore alternate ways for visitors to learn about bogs. The exhibit contains randomly-spaced round walls that are clad in the reactive wall cells. When a visitor touches a cell, they begin to contract into the wall in an outwards pattern, creating a ripple effect on the wall, which then spreads to other nearby walls. This outwards ripple effect is meant to guide the visitor through the exhibit and reveal other parts of the exhibit.

Enlarged views of sphagnum moss cells. Sectional view (left) and axonometric (right)

The shape of the reactive wall cells are influenced by the shape of microscopic hylene cells found in Sphagnum moss. Sphagnum has the unique ability to hold up to 20 times its weight in water. Since the plant cannot regulate its water intake, it must rely on being able to store large amounts of water for dry periods. I felt that this shape was appropriate to be enlarged and used for the wall cells because the process of touching the wall cell is similar to squeezing water out of a hylene cell. The resulting ripple formed by the wall cells reacting reminds the visitor of the connection to water and the ripples one might experience when walking on the surface of a bog.

In the finished model, the contraction of the wall cell would be regulated by conductive thread sewn into the face of the cell. The act of a visitor brushing against or touching the wall cell would complete a circuit and make a motor pull on the threads, causing the cell’s face to contract into the wall. After a certain amount of time, the motor would release the string and the cell would expand, due in part to being stuffed with polyester filling.

A model of a fabric cell in its relaxed state (top) and compressed state after being touched (bottom)