23 May 2019 Leisure Handbook

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Leisure Handbook - Todd Schliemann


Todd Schliemann

When designing a home for the Natural History Museum of Utah, Ennead partner Todd Schliemann decided to let the landscape take centre stage. He tells Magali Robathan how he approached the project

Magali Robathan, CLAD mag
Todd Schliemann PHOTO: © BEN BAKER
The building’s copper cladding blends with the landscape PHOTOS OF NHMU: © JEFF GOLDBERG/ESTO
A vast atrium called the Canyon acts as a central public space and displays some of the Museum’s collection
Todd Schliemann’s other projects include The Standard hotel New York PHOTO: © AISLINN WEIDELE/ENNEAD ARCHITECTS
The design of The Standard has won awards including a National Design Award from the Society of American Registered Architects PHOTO: © NIKOLAS KOENIG

How did you begin your career as an architect?
My father was an architect, so as a child I sat at his drafting table and used his equipment. I grew up in the 1960s, when architecture wasn’t just about designing buildings; it was a way of life. Architecture was a complete experience – it was about furniture and plates and fittings, how you served your food and lived your life. It had a powerful influence on me.

It was also a time before computers; there were no video games, so in my spare time I made things.

I studied architecture at Cornell University. After graduating, I taught architecture briefly and then came to New York in 1979. I’ve been here ever since. When I started working at the Polshek Partnership, there were only seven people on the team. Now it has a new name, I’m one of the founding partners, and there are 170 people working for the firm. [It became Ennead Architects in 2010].

What’s your approach?
My philosophy is that buildings must serve people. Architecture is the mother of the arts. Its power is both intellectual and emotional. Not only must it incorporate sound construction and beautiful aesthetics, but it also has to touch people and make their lives better. There are many different ways to do this, because each project is different. The influences that you bring to bear on the buildings are all varied, but in the end architecture is a cultural statement. It has to be responsive to people and the uses they put it to.

How did you get involved with the Natural History Museum of Utah?
I had designed the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, so when the directors of the Natural History Museum of Utah started thinking about creating a new building, they sent us an invitation to interview. I went through several interviews, and they selected us.

What were the aims of the new building?
The Natural History Museum of Utah was previously housed on the University of Utah’s campus in an old library building, which was not at all suitable. The stacks that had contained books were storage for the Museum’s collections, it wasn’t air-conditioned, and there wasn’t enough space to exhibit or tell stories or teach.

So first and foremost, they wanted the right facility to house their collection, which is substantial. Then after that, they wanted the new museum to tell the story of the region and of its people.

What was your brief?
I had complete freedom. Early on in the project, the museum’s director, Sarah George, borrowed two jeeps from the Governor of Utah’s office and we travelled around the state for a week. We explored the natural landscape, talked to many people and got a feel for Utah’s character – this was important so that we could make the building represent that.

After this trip, it became clear that Utah is all about the land and how people have engaged it for thousands of years – people have been trying to deal with what is a very harsh landscape for a long time. The building had to be responsive to that; it had to feel as though it belonged to the land, but it also had to serve the people and tell the story of Utah’s natural history in a way people could understand whether they were six or 60 years old – if they were a native American or an immigrant.

Can you describe the building?
It sits on the edge of culture and the edge of nature. It’s in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountain Range, and is also on the edge of Salt Lake City.

Our goal was to create a building that would blend with nature and appear to be like a rocky outcrop. We used board- formed concrete at the base of the building, which is striated to appear as if it’s a land form – one that has built up over time. We covered the exterior with copper which was donated by Kennecott Utah/Rio Tinto, whose mines are right across the valley. On the roof we have planted areas, as if silt has fallen on the rock and plants have grown there. We think the planting and the building blend quite nicely with the landscape.

Inside the building we created the Canyon, which is a 60-ft-high public space where people can gather and which can be used for events. It has an almost church-like scale to it and is very inspiring because of its height.

The Canyon sets the stage for the visitor experience. When you get people into a museum like this you want to make sure you’ve got them ready to learn. The emotionally-charged experience of getting into a space like the Canyon makes it more than just an intellectual exercise. It touches you as a human being first and then gets your mind working.

Then there are the galleries. Their sequence builds a narrative that encompasses many ideas from the region and explains them in a way people can understand. On the opposite side of the building is the working part of the museum, the empirical part – research and conservation labs, storage and admin.

The approach to the Museum is very important to the experience of the building. You get out of your car, enter the building, ascend from a compressed entry lobby to the voluminous, light-filled Canyon and then traverse, through a series of switchbacks, to the top floor. The switchbacks, which ascend 90 feet, allow you to climb and not feel it’s an exhausting experience.

Then of course you’ve also got the views from the roof and the Canyon looking out across all of the Salt Lake Valley to the lake, with the mountains in the background.

What is your favourite part of the museum?
The Canyon is the most interesting to me. It really is a spectacular volume of space. As you go through the museum you are always using the Canyon as a wayfinding reference. You know where you are because you can always see back into it.

How important was it for the museum to be sustainable?
Everything we do is sustainable, whether the client asks or not. In this case it was very important to them, but if the building is going to be part of the land, it must be responsive to the land in the long term.

The building has a solar array on the roof behind the planting. We have underground water retention tanks for controlling erosion on the site. The building is built into the side of the hill – half of it is buried – which creates a flywheel effect, which keeps the building cool in the summer and warm in the winter. There are all kinds of high-performance mechanical systems running at peak efficiency.

We don’t have many windows in the museum because natural light can damage the items on display, so we’ve been able to create a very tight exterior envelope. This means there’s not a lot of air passage between inside and out, which allows the building to use less energy. With a nice tight wall construction, the mechanical equipment doesn’t have to work so hard to control the variations in temperature and humidity.

What reactions have you had to the museum’s design?
It seems to be doing what we wanted. People get inspired when they see it.

Who do you admire in architecture?
Mostly dead architects, I’m afraid! Eero Saarinen, who was a Finnish/American architect in the 1950s and 1960s, is a strong influence. He did some rather amazing buildings such as Dulles International Airport in the US and also designed the Gateway Arch in St Louis. He was extraordinarily talented – his architecture is very thoughtful and beautiful.

What do you love about your job?
I love to make things. You can think up an idea, and then make it. That’s very rewarding. Sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you want, and sometimes it does, but it’s a joy to try.

And what do you enjoy the least?
Probably clients who don’t want to understand the bigger ideas. Small thinkers. I suffer fools badly.

Where do you get your inspiration?
It comes from whatever context I’m working in. The context in the case of the Natural History Museum of Utah was complex, and was about the land and the people. If I’m working in New York, it’s about the city and how people engage with it. The inspiration always comes from people and the context.

Where is your favourite place?
I love the sea. I have always sailed and it’s a fabulous thing. The ground is always moving and you can go anywhere you want in the world – it’s a highway to everywhere. There’s something upside down about it; everything takes place underneath the surface.


The Natural History Museum of Utah’s new US$102m home opened in Salt Lake City in November 2011. The Museum, which was established in 1963, is associated with the University of Utah, and was previously housed in the university’s campus building.

The Museum is an active research institu- tion, with a collection of more than 1.2 mil- lion specimens and objects. It features more than 41,300 sq ft of gallery and education space, with the collections housed in new exhibitions designed by Ralph Appelbaum As- sociates. Nine dedicated exhibition galleries explore the Sky, Native Voices, Life, Land, First Peoples, Lake (Great Salt Lake), Past Worlds, Our Backyard and Utah’s Futures.

The new building was inspired by the region’s natural landscape of rock, soil, minerals and vegetation. By incorporating the use of recycled materials, local resources, photovoltaic energy, radiant cooling and the implementation of an extensive storm water catchment and management system, the Natural History Museum of Utah is seeking LEED Gold certification, which would make it one of only 18 buildings in Salt Lake City with that distinction.

From Leisure Management Issue 3 2012, p36

Originally published in Leisure Handbook 2014 edition

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