02 September 2013
fabrik Landscape Architects specialise in the creation of OutsideInside spaces which blend internal and external areas, experiences and uses. We seek out successful examples which we can learn from, and were taken by the skilful collaboration between Architect Arthur Erickson, and Landscape Architect Cornelia Oberlander, which resulted in the stunning Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
The museum displays world arts and cultures collections, in particular works by First Nations peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, which inspired the building’s ‘post and beam’ architecture. It also evokes the strong custodial and spiritual relationship of the indigenous peoples with their environment.
The understated museum entrance is set into the slope of the site, approached obliquely down a generous but simple set of steps bordered by woodland trees and ferns. Passing offset columns, which mimic the uprights of adjacent tree trunks, visitors cross the foyer and initially enter a confined alley.
This passage gradually opens out into a processional route. Unusually, the floor steadily ramps down through the building and the roof height continually steps up to reveal and enclose a vast volume, within which traditional carvings and masks are displayed. Whilst physical connectivity to the outside is inevitably limited (due to the Museum’s controlled conditions and security requirements), the vast expanses of glass between massive concrete columns set totems and sculptures against a backdrop of grassland, water and trees. These elements are consequently seen in a natural setting, akin to their original placement; alternately flooded by daylight or cast into deep shade.
Temperate rainforest species surround the museum, with the restricted palette of species reflecting the simplicity of building materials. This heightens awareness of nature’s complexities as intricate shadows, cast by the surrounding canopies, ebb across the rough concrete planes. Damp woodland opens out into rough grassland, within which tribal statues and carvings stand immediately outside the main display hall. The plant material is based on ethno-botanical research to include species used by the native peoples for food and medicine.
The Museum’s construction is uncompromisingly contemporary, constructed from concrete and of a monumental scale, but bears a striking resemblance to the massing and structure of the adjacent Haida houses. Both sit on the edge of a pebble swathe which leads down into a shallow water body. It is hard to imagine the site without the presence of water, but a permanent pool was only introduced in 2010, some 34 years after building completion. Standing on the water’s edge to look back at the museum, one is also struck by the structure’s resemblance to layered tree uprights at the forest edge.
A minor disappointment is the visible site perimeter, which could have been better obscured. Ideally this boundary would be completed removed, extending the site to the adjacent coastline to reinforce the aboriginal peoples’ relationship to the sea. Aside from this, the seemingly effortless unity between building, collections and setting is stunning – a fantastic testament to the thoughtful expertise of two designers who were acutely aware of cultural, social and environmental sensitivities, whilst maximising visitor experience.
by Naomi Burl