The evolution completes

Tuesday 15 Sep 2009

Darwin Centre opens its doors this week

Eight years after Anna Maria Indrio and other competing architects were faced with two insect specimens - one tiny mosquito and one giant, transformed through time - what was just a glimmer of an idea has evolved into what is arguably one of the UK's most intriguing architectural achievements - the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, London.

CF Moller's Indrio came up with the winning design for the most significant addition the 1881 building has ever had. The design for the £78 million addition was to include a theatre, laboratories, further exhibition space and most importantly a structure that could hold, protect and exhibit over 20 million specimens of insects and plants. The solution to the latter was ingenious. Mimicking nature itself, Indrio developed a 'cocoon' design which would nurture the specimens as the natural structure nurtures its inhabitants. The contents of the man-made cocoon would be kept at a steady optimum of 17°C and 45 per cent relative humidity, and would show the evolutionary process through its exhibits just as the natural cocoon transforms the creature inside.

The result is an eight storey curved internal structure, oblique in shape, nesting within a semi-transparent glass box. Resembling the lines of silk used in creating natural cocoons, the exterior of the Darwin Centre's cocoon is comprised of panels of sprayed concrete which together at the seams draw criss-crossing lines around its body. The panels function both to allow movement, expansion and contraction of the structure with no damage, and to ease repair if any damage does occur. At 3,500 sq m and at 60 m long and 12 m wide, the cocoon is the largest sprayed concrete structure in Europe.

Visitors to the Darwin Centre can navigate down and through the cocoon, experiencing both nature and the scale of human talent. Navigating through the structure provides an almost subconcious experience as the paths lead you inside and out of the tower seamlessly, guiding you through the three exhibition floors accessible to the public - the other floors are used in entirity to host the 3.3 kilometres of shelving needed to stock the specimens.

The relevance of the Darwin Centre has not escaped the upper echelons either, with the Prince of Wales joining the UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and nature broadcasting legend Sir David Attenborough at an opening ceremony yesterday. Sir Attenborough, in fact, is so heavily involved with the Natural History Museum that part of the Darwin Centre is named after him. The Attenborough Studio provides a feast of interest throughout the day as a state-of-the-art communication centre integrating innovative technology with live animals, historical footage and museum scientists.

The Darwin Centre is unique in the close proximity created between the 220 working scientists and the public. Transparency plays a major role in the design and barriers are removed by scientists' live, active involvement with exhibits in full view of visitors. In the construction of the Darwin Centre, the sharing of knowledge that Attenborough has strived for throughout his career has been extended: "Never has it been so important to understand the diversity of life on Earth and how it is changing, if we are to tackle many of the issues that humans face today," he said.

"The Darwin Centre will inspire the next generation of naturalists and scientists through its combination of scientific expertise, specimens, public dialogue, film and interactive media. It will enable all of us to explore the wonders of our world and investigate its secrets."

Niki May Young
News Editor

Architect for the Darwin Centre, Anna Maria Indrio, took WAN on an exclusive tour through the Cocoon... JOIN IN HERE!

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