Since opening May 1, 2006, the architecture of the newly expanded University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks has continued to inspire references to its surrounding natural environment. Critics and visitors have likened the building, with its strong angular forms, to an iceberg, breaching whales, calving glaciers and sliding tectonic plates. The project was recently awarded a 2006 AIA Minnesota Honor Award as well as the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture Design Honor Award.
Architect Joan Soranno, vice president of HGA, Minneapolis, spent weeks studying the planes and dynamics of the Alaskan landscape and seascape before designing the building. Ice shears and whale fins through water, along with mountains and snow, were among the themes informing her design.
But a literal interpretation of the landscape wasn’t her intent. Instead, Soranno enveloped the existing 40,0000-square-foot rectangular museum in a two-story addition that captures the essence of the Alaskan landscape, while leaving plenty of room for interpretation. Sited on a bluff at the entrance to the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the 78,000-square-foot building is composed of sculptural interior spaces that find further expression in dramatic exterior forms.
The building’s exterior is clad in panels of an aluminum-composite material coated in a custom finish of white paint with mica flakes. The metallic finish subtly captures and reflects the ever-changing Alaskan light, causing the structure’s appearance to change throughout the day and from season to season. Visible for miles in all directions, the museum is a cultural beacon for Alaska’s Native American, artistic and natural heritage. Inside, the building showcases more than 1.4 million objects, artifacts, artworks and specimens from the museum’s collections.
At the center of the structure, between the building’s two dramatic “fins,” is a crevasse-like, two-story, light-filled lobby whose 30-foot-high, triple-pane windows provide panoramic views of the Alaska Range and the Tanana River Valley. In the evening, light emanating from the lobby creates a welcoming glow for passersby. A new museum store is located adjacent to the lobby. The first floor also includes a new multipurpose auditorium that seats 125 people and is equipped with retractable seating for lectures, films and theater performances; a new special-exhibition gallery; and a unique visible-storage gallery for displaying paintings.
A long, monumental stair with sensuously curved railings leads from the first floor to the second level, where the new Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery is the main focus. The gallery’s 40-foot-high walls provide space for the museum to hang large-scale Native and contemporary art. Outside the gallery is a spacious “living room” furnished with couches on which visitors can rest to offset museum fatigue. Indigenous stone and wood were used throughout the building’s interior, which also includes additional space for the museum’s administrative offices, research laboratories and expanding collections.
HGA collaborated with the Alaskan architectural/engineering firm GDM Inc., to ensure the structure withstands the climatic extremes of Alaska. As with other museums, the interior temperature must remain at approximately 69 degrees with 35-percent relative humidity to protect the art and artifacts. At the same time the building was engineered to withstand sub-arctic exterior temperatures to 60 degrees below zero or lower, and temperatures that rise to 90 degrees in summer with relative humidity.
The museum’s signature architecture element, however, is the enormous white, cantilevered form that “slides” over a lower, rectangular element. “There was a certain kinetic energy about Alaska I found intriguing, an incredible sense of movement,” Soranno says, which resulted in the soaring planar and curving shapes that today signify the flagship museum.