The Museum of the Earth, commissioned by the Paleontological Research Institution, engages the remarkable landforms of the state’s Finger Lakes region. The museum houses one of the nation’s largest paleontological collections and demonstrates the intrinsic relationships between geological events and biological evolution. Shifted and carved by a receding ice sheet twenty thousand years ago, the site is marked by a gradual, forty-foot slope. The design capitalizes on this rich condition, making vivid the dynamic interrelationship between biology and geology that is central to the museum’s mission.
Approached from the south, a series of sculpted landforms and linear water terraces organize the site and museum into a coherent whole. These ten-foot-high landscaped berms, which recall moraines, define and conceal four distinct parking areas. Precisely graded, the parking areas divert groundwater runoff to bioswales with gravel filters and reintroduced prehistoric grasses such as equisetum, cleansing the groundwater of chemicals and other pollutants. Channelled into the linear-stepped and stone-lined terrace, water is directed between the two museum wings, where it collects in a reflecting pool. Excess water fills the pool until it overflows into a new wetlands detention basin that calibrates the release of water into nearby Lake Cayuga.
Set into the hillside and adjacent to the existing research facility, the museum is organized into two parallel buildings – a public education wing and an exhibition wing – that are connected below grade. These structures are defined by a series of poured-in-place concrete walls, aluminum curtain walls, and standing-seam copper roofs cantilevered over the two wings of the museum. The partially buried structures define the edges of a cascading plaza, extending views to the lake and the surrounding landscape.
The twenty thousand square foot museum is organized in section to capitalize on the change of grade and provide a varied and spatially rich itinerary for the museum visitor. Just inside the exhibition hall entrance, the lobby takes the form of a bridge leading to a reception area and gift shop. To the left of the bridge, the complete skeleton of a rare Right Whale, a contemporary mammal, is suspended above the exhibition area, which is reached by a long ramp. As visitors walk along the ramp they descend in time, passing artist Barbara Page’s installation of 543 different panels, each representing one million years of geologic history. On the lower level, the exhibition
extends through three geological periods: Devonian, Triassic, and Quaternary; interactive exhibits with more than 650 specimens are on view, including the ancient skeleton of a woolly mammoth.
In addition to innovative water-management strategies, a number of other sustainable initiatives support the pedagogic mission of the museum. The below-grade exhibition hall benefits from thermal insulation achieved by embedding both wings of the complex deep within the earth. Heating and cooling systems for the building are supplemented by geothermal energy provided by two ground-source water pumps that harness energy from fifteen hundred feet beneath the earth’s surface. This energy is transformed into radiant floor heating in the winter and fed into an air-handling system for heating and cooling year-round.
The design of the Museum of the Earth capitalizes on ideas of entropy – sedimentation, erosion, and freeze/thaw cycles – that relate to the glacially gouged topography unique to the Finger Lakes region. Rather than considering the site as distinct and separate from the museum, this project creates a new topography: a continuous, terraced landscape that fuses architecture and ecology into a cohesive expression of the geologic processes involved in the region’s formation.
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