The second phase of the Darwin Centre is an extension of the famous Natural History Museum in London, taking the form of a huge eight-storey concrete cocoon, surrounded by a glass atrium. The Natural History Museum is both one of the UK’s top five visitor attractions, and a world-leading science research centre. The architecture of the Darwin Centre reflects this dual role, and reveals to the public for the first time the incredible range and diversity of the Museum’s collections and the cutting-edge scientific research they support.
The second phase of the Darwin Centre completes the western site of the Natural History Museum, uniting Alfred Waterhouse’s terracotta construction from 1881, with the first phase of the Darwin Centre which opened in 2002. The brief for the building had three key objectives: to provide a home for the museum’s unique collection of 17 million insect and 3 million plant specimens, to provide a working area for the research scientists and to enable the public to interact with the scientists and the collections. This has been achieved by providing visitors with an opportunity to go on self-guided tours in and around the cocoon, which gives glimpses of the research facility and the extent of the collections.
The collections housed in the Natural History Museum are among the worlds most extensive and treasured. In order to adequately preserve, maintain and represent this collection, a structure suitable in both its expression and physical construction was necessary. The Cocoon does this by creating an icon, which represents preservation, protection and nature. It is constructed of 300mm thick sprayed-concrete walls, with a defined geometric form based on mathematical equations. The surface finish is made up of ivory-coloured polished plaster, resembling a silk cocoon, around which a series of expansion joints wrap, resembling silk threads..
The shape and size of the Cocoon are such that it cannot be seen in its entirety from any one position, emphasising its massive scale and giving the visitor a tangible understanding of the volume of the collections contained within. The collections areas within the Cocoon are of world-class importance, and the regulation of temperature and humidity reduce the risk of pest infestations, ensuring that the collections will be protected and preserved for many years to come. The exposed thermal mass of the continuously-sprayed reinforced concrete shell maintains a stable internal environment, and minimises energy usage.
Public access to the scientific core of the second phase of the Darwin Centre takes the form of a visitor route which leads up and through the cocoon, overlooking the science and collection areas. From inside this cavernous space, visitors can experience the Darwin Centre as a compelling and interactive learning space, and observe the scientific and research activities without interrupting the scientific work in progress. Scenic passenger lifts and ramps of very low gradient ensure that the experience is comfortable and interesting for able-bodied and disabled visitors alike.
The second phase of the Darwin Centre is intended to manage the difference in scale and architectural approach, and to create a physical link between the original landmark Alfred Waterhouse museum building and the more contemporary addition of the first phase of the Darwin Centre. It also serves as a landmark building in its own right, the full-height glass wall partially revealing the solid three-dimensional form of the cocoon within.
The public atrium space is dramatic, tall and filled with daylight, and creates a link that completes the western portion of the Natural History Museum’s property and clarifies the circulation patterns within the museum for both staff and visitors. The new building changes the Natural History Museum’s relationship with the site from that of an introverted to an extroverted building, and improves and transforms the existing buildings into something more than the sum of their parts – by bridging the past, present and future of the museum.