Cocoon evolves Natural History Museum

Niki May Young
Tuesday 02 Sep 2008

Second phase of Darwin Centre construction completes revealing the magnificent preservative cocoon centrepiece

In nature a cocoon protects the growing creature inside and allows a transformation to take place. It is these qualities which gave inspiration to CF Møller Architects’ Anna Maria Indrio when she designed the spectacular second phase of London's Natural History Museum’s new Darwin Centre.

Encased within a glass box adjacent to the original Grade 1 listed Waterhouse Building stands the giant cocoon. Its enormity and complexity of design together with its positioning and relationship with the exterior building ensure that you will never see it all at once, a concept which was central to the design process.

“It’s very important that you don’t smash this form out,” said Indrio, “It’s a question of magic, you don’t want to show the cocoon all at once.” The structure conveys the message of its purpose: while the cocoon holds 70 million specimens, 28 million of which are insects, 90 % of the world’s species are yet to be discovered or classified – simply put, nature is so enormous it can never be seen all at once.

The nine storey structure is also extremely complex in nature. Indrio explains: “There were many many elements to consider. The sheer size and complexity of scientists working environment and how they connect with the collection and the very modern concept of allowing the public access to see this...it was very daunting.”

The structure is comprised of a thick, concrete shell hand laid by 50 men and with exterior panels of which no two are the same, representing the diversity of the natural world. This exterior, whilst complex, offered a solution to the technical question of how to cover such an enormous curved structure to the best effect. Indrio explained that the cocoon had always been drawn as one smooth surface but this evolved after talks with engineers, Arup. Following several sleepless nights, the CF Møller team started to draw lines which transformed the shape to look like a silk cocoon. The lines crossed over to create individual panels that not only add to the meaning of the structure but ensure that any damage or difficulty can be easily resolved. Hand plastered by Armourcoat using an Italian technique, the plaster was mixed with powdered marble to match that used in the flooring and to add a lustre which will reflect light at different angles and add to the silken effect.

Whilst cosmetically beautiful the cocoon is also practically effective in the preservation of the specimens and in satisfying one of the main objectives of the extension: to change the experience within the museum to allow for greater understanding of science and wider inspiration to the public. This experience will occur within the nine-storey cocoon as tours take visitors through an observation space showing scientists working, exhibition space and 3.5 km of storage racks for collections to work as an inspiration for scientists of the future who will be able to enjoy the space when it completes in September 2009.

Transparency was integral in the design to open up the scientific world and create an inspiring space where scientists can bounce off one another and accidental learning can occur. Windows in the cocoon and across the bridge taking you into the cocoon allow visitors to gaze through the building, into laboratories and through to the original building. Gaps in the floor allow for a whole and integrated space throughout the many storeys.

This latest development at the Natural History Museum is the most significant since it moved to South Kensington in 1881 and this is reflected by the generous donations towards the £78 million cost by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and The Wellcome Trust.

Seven years after CF Møller won the design competition and three years after the construction began, the Natural History Museum, like a caterpillar in a cocoon, has had its very own metamorphosis. To borrow the phrase from the architect herself: “This is a transformation, not an addition.”

Niki May Young
News Editor

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United Kingdom

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