Sensitive Swiss Flower of Exposed Concrete
Up until the end of 2016 the Art and Natural History Museums in St.Gallen shared a neoclassical building that dates back to 1877. Undoubtedly this combination of natural science and art can foster certain fruitful and enriching perspectives and, above all, can prevent the one discipline being automatically viewed as the conveyance of objective truth and the other being reduced to the expression of subjectivity. Both disciplines follow their own logic, and it is precisely this inherent logic that means one is no more correct than the other; indeed, both disciplines can claim general validity and authority.
Nevertheless, for each relative claim to be formulated convincingly, it should be conveyed in a way that is contemporary. And that is what was lacking in St.Gallen. The old museum building had long since become too small for natural science and art to be presented in contemporary style. After the idea of expanding the historic building was vetoed by the population, the authorities developed plans for an entirely new building for the Natural History Museum. Financial support from a private foundation helped the project in particular: Of the almost 40 million francs it cost to build the museum, the city contributed half, whilst the foundation paid 13 million francs and the Canton covered the rest. At the end of 2009 the competition was won by two Zurich-based architectural firms: Meier Hug Architekten and Armon Semadeni Architekten prevailed among the 127 submissions. Construction work began in February 2014, and November 2016 saw the inauguration of the new building.
In the center of the “in-between-city”
The new Natural History Museum is located on a plot in the eastern part of St.Gallen, where the city already has a clear in-between character. The environment is shaped by sports facilities and educational institutions, and residential buildings from the 1950s are interspersed with traditional-style chalets. This is truly an “in-between city” area: A big supermarket is situated nearby and the freeway tunnel that runs under some parts of the city resurfaces here just a few meters behind the broad arterial road that also runs past the museum. The underground course of the tunnel is delineated in the terrain as a green strip, across which the Natural History Museum and an early 20th-century church now stand opposite one another. On the one hand, the new cultural attraction will enrich the city, and on the other, the Botanical Gardens are very close by – one of the most important reasons for the choice of location.
The architects proposed a building made up of five nave-like structures of different lengths and with gabled roofs, on top of each of which a full-length bar skylight would be positioned. The compact, sturdy form and the large volume of the building is thus broken down by this roof form and the front and rear protrusions of the five naves, and demonstrates a keen sense for the right dimensions in the way it is inserted into the heterogeneous context, which is likewise characterized by sturdy individual buildings, most significantly the church.
References on many levels
In the form, there are references to the residential buildings, and those who look carefully can also see reflections of the shape of the glasshouses in the Botanical Gardens. The central one of the five naves picks up on the central axis of the church across the green strip – this is noticeable yet modest, as in contrast to the church the floor plan of the museum is not axially symmetrical. Under the upper floor, which juts out over the street, there is a bench, thus no additional shelter is required for the bus stop.
The restrained appearance is enhanced by windows of various sizes arranged according to no strict pattern with frames made of anodized aluminum, as well as the non-rear-ventilated curtain façade made of exposed concrete, in which grooves have been created using a die plate made of silicon-like plastic. The recesses provide for a lively surface that varies particularly in sunlight. Like the shape of the building itself, these also open up an allusive field of association, which ranges from the pillars of the building that until recently housed the Natural History Museum to other classical buildings, to the pillars of old temples which themselves made reference to tree trunks.
Concrete with traces of production
The important thing is that this concrete was not manufactured to a level of perfection that removes its traces of production, but rather that irregularities on the surface are embraced. Thus the concrete appears as an artificial stone and hence points to the ambivalence of that which one finds presented as “nature” within the museum.
It is therefore only fitting that the inner organization of the museum can barely be deduced from the outside. Instead the architects develop each element with a logic of its own. Hence the five “naves”, which are so crucial for the external effect, are less defined in the interior. Generally visitors move transversely across them as they go through the building, so the functional organization is resolved extremely well, because it need not be subject to the external image. The entrance area comprises seminar and presentation rooms on both sides, which can therefore also be used entirely independently of the museum operations.
Stairs pick up on the incline of the terrain and lead up to the spacious, mezzanine-level foyer with café, which will soon be expanded to include an outdoor area. The plan is to use one large wall to present milestones in the museum’s history, including the four-meter-long crocodile, which was gifted to the city in 1632 and represented the start of the collection from which the Natural History Museum was born. Nagelfluh stone, which is like a natural concrete, has been mounted on the walls in the foyer and the entrance area, higher than a plinth yet lower than the space and the passageways, so that it alternates between wall cladding and exhibit. This is one of the region’s building materials and can therefore also be found in several other places in the city.
Scenography and ecology
Another half-story up and the museum proper begins, arranged on three levels openly connected with one another and offering a varied course of smaller and larger, higher and lower spaces and niches. There is a room for temporary exhibitions on the lowest level, whilst in the middle – again a half-story higher – there is a two-story area housing a large topographic model of the entire canton, and on the top story the visitor can look forward to seeing the skeleton of a duck-billed dinosaur which, together with the stone formation that still partially encases it, weighs two tons. Like most of the exhibits, this skeleton too is displayed without protective glass, which enhances the direct effect and makes the visit more attractive for children and young people in particular.
The scenographic approach combines themes and exhibits in a narrative, and it is only at the first station, which is dedicated to bears and the forest, that the shift from the installation of a cave and abstracted trees appears too labored; nevertheless the open nest with live ants makes up for this. Overall, the divide between the directness of the spatial installations and the distance-forming abstraction works well.
The top floor is the only museum level to occupy the entire floor space and opens up to the topographic model creating a gallery, whilst large windows offer an unobstructed view of the surroundings. The roof is crucial in defining the look of the space. It is lavishly constructed from large steel framework beams and at its longest point spans 45 meters unsupported. Right from the beginning the Minergie P eco-standard, customary in Switzerland, was the target for the new building, which not only requires energy consumption comparable with that of a passive house, but also the use of ecological materials that pose no risk to health. On surfaces covered in metal, photovoltaic elements were mounted on the building, which is supplied with warm water by 17 ground probes. Thanks to the ample daylight, the use of artificial light can be reduced. What appears pragmatic however, also links up to the content of the museum and makes the building itself a part of the exhibition, so to speak.
Now, with the new building, 2,000 square meters of exhibition space are available. A laboratory offers young people a place to experiment, whilst at the back there is an archive, workshops and offices. An exhibition station looks specifically at how much energy is required to produce the things we use on a daily basis and how we can be more environmentally friendly. How the environment is changing and the influence human beings are having on it by continually intervening in a formative way and not acknowledging the fact that nature is not immutable is a continual theme throughout the museum. The outdoor space between the church and the museum is still currently a simple lawn, but is soon set to become a park that will then expand the museum and link it up to the Botanical Gardens.
While for the Natural History Museum the new building, with its exponentially increased possibilities for presenting the countless exhibits, represents a new lease of life, the Art Museum has reacted to the Natural History Museum’s move with a special exhibition, which is also well worth a visit. In his work Mark Dion connects a passion for collecting, observation of nature and philosophical discourse and thus opens up the field of possible interpretations of nature, which go beyond science and incorporate history, irony, humor and social critique. In the Art Museum he is showing his own Natural History Museum – a second one, if you will. Thus for now, the Art and the Natural History Museums remain linked to one another even in separate locations. Hopefully the two institutions will keep this enriching eye on one another for a long time to come.
Rorschacher Strasse 263, CH-9016 St.Gallen
Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Wednesday until 8 p.m.
Mark Dion: The wondrous Museum of Nature
Kunstmuseum St.Gallen, Museumstrasse 32, CH-9000 St.Gallen
Until September 17, 2017. Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., Wednesday until 8 p.m.