Nestled in the foothills above Salt Lake City, the $102-million Natural History Museum of Utah in the Rio Tinto Center began welcoming visitors in mid-November. The new museum rests on a section of what was once the shoreline of ancient Lake Bonneville. It has already garnered praise from the design and building community as well as those wishing to explore the state’s unique people, geology and history.

The NHMU, administered by the University of Utah, sits on a 17-acre site on the upper southeastern edge of campus with sweeping views of the Salt Lake Valley. The 163,000-sq-ft museum is now home to a collection of around 1.2-million artifacts, including items from Utah’s Native American tribes, regional flora and fauna specimens and the state’s sizable number of dinosaur fossils.

Designed by Todd Schliemann of New York City-based Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership Architects) in partnership with GSBS Architects of Salt Lake City, the building is composed primarily of exposed concrete with unique copper-alloy cladding. The natural patina of the copper alloy blends with the hillside and gives the building a stratified but fractured appearance, evoking the sandstone deserts and rugged mountains of Utah.

The museum is built in steps up the hillside, with exhibits featuring Utah’s geography and the history of its people, animals and plant life on different levels. The exhibit spaces are located on the south end of the building, with laboratory, storage and office space on the north end.

The two wings are connected by bridges over a three-story “canyon” that serves as a central gathering and way-finding element. Floor-to-ceiling windows span the west-facing end of the canyon, providing visitors expansive views west to the Salt Lake Valley with the Great Salt Lake and Oquirrh Mountains, home to the Kennecott copper mine, which produced the ore for the building’s cladding.

“Ecstatic is not too strong a word for how we feel about this building,” says Museum Director Sarah George, who was part of the collaborative design team. “It is beautiful, but it also functions so well. The building we were in before was designed as a library, and there were so many things we could not do there. Now, to be in a space that is designed for us, is just wonderful.”

Rooted in Place

Schliemann says he had never visited Utah before receiving the commission for the museum. So, in 2005 he and George, along with others on the design team, began touring the state, visiting the landscapes and people in order to formulate initial designs.
“The goal was the illumination of Utah’s identity as the starting point for the development of an architecture in the service of science and discovery,” Schliemann said in a written statement. “This investigation yielded an extensive database of impressions, observations, verbal histories and narratives that define Utah.”

Salt Lake City-based Big-D Construction was selected as the contractor under a CM/GC contract and brought into design early in the process.

“They (Big-D) became significant contributors to what we were doing,” says George. “They helped us look for solutions to things early on.”