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Shanghai Natural History Museum


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Shanghai Nature Museum

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Year Completed



479,180 sq. feet



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Text by Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

Located in the heart of Shanghai, this building asks us to contemplate our relationship to nature—as a natural history museum should. Its nautilus-shaped core, representing one of the most efficient forms in nature, enables people to spiral up from the surrounding park onto the building’s extensive green roof, into the museum under its corner entry canopy, and down into a courtyard and light well, whose meandering stairs and irregular pools recall Chinese water gardens. The courtyard’s curving glass wall follows the spiral up, down, and around, shaded by a screen whose fractured pattern echoes the cracked-ice pattern of traditional latticework as well as biological cells.

From the park to the east, visitors see a vertical, planted wall with cutouts for windows and signage; the museum faces the street to the north with an undulating, geological masonry wall that recalls sedimentation and erosion. From the nearby residential towers, the rectilinear and curving form of the museum’s green roof repeats the patterns of the pathways in the neighboring Jing’an Sculpture Park.

Although much of the museum stands below grade, the spiraling light well illuminates an indoor atrium and the circulation that surrounds it. Skylights over the curving central spine through the building bring daylight deep inside, ensuring that the exhibits about nature never seem far from the natural world. And as in nature, this building handles functional complexity with simplicity and clarity, showing an evolved design mind at work.

Project Credits
Project: Shanghai Natural History Museum, Shanghai
Client: Shanghai Nature Museum . Mr. Gu Jiansheng (deputy director)
Architect: Perkins+Will, Chicago . Ralph Johnson, FAIA (design principal); G. William Doerge (managing principal); Bryan Schabel, AIA, Thomas Demetrion (project designers); Xinfang Chen (project manager); Marius Ronnett, AIA ( project architect); Abul Abdullah, Matt Booma, Xichun Cai, Yi Cai, Yong Cai, Daniel Ferrario, Daniel Festag, Adam Freise, Nathan Freise, Chengyan Hu, Yun Hua, Leila Kanar, Kyle Knudson, Nicholas Michelin, Li Pan, Todd Snapp, Michael Tumminello, Jun Wang, Yune Xie (project team)
Interior Designer: Perkins+Will
Associate Architect: Tongji University Architectural Design & Research Institute
Engineer of Record/Mechanical/Structural/Civil Engineer: Tongji University Architectural Design & Research Institute
Construction Manager: Shanghai Science & Technology Museum
General Contractor: Shanghai Construction Group
Landscape Architect: Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects
CFD Simulation Report: Tongji University Green Building and New Energy Research Center
Curtainwall Consultant: Aurecon
Curtainwall Contractors: Sinobau; Shanghai Mechanical Construction Group
Exhibit Design: Gallagher & Associates
Exhibit Contractor: Shanghai Arts Design
Exterior Lighting Consultant: Shanghai SJ Lighting Engineering & Equipment
Fire Protection Consultant: Rolf Jensen & Associates
Geothermal Heat Pump Feasibility Report: Jiangsu Green Building Engineering Research Center
Interior Contractor: Shanghai Xinli Decoration Engineering
LEED Consultant: Shanghai GreenCity
Sustainability Consultants: DHV
Sustainability Consulting Cooperative Parties: Shanghai Educational Engineering; Haskoning
Size: 479,180 square feet
Cost: Withheld

This project appears in the March 2016 issue of ARCHITECT, as part of the Perkins+Will project portfolio Ralph Johnson: New Topographies.

Project Description


The Cell Wall is the iconic feature of the Shanghai Natural History Museum, and is the main design feature from the initial competition phase. Composed of three layers, each with its own unique geometrical pattern and organic form, the wall is organized in an elliptical cone shape envelope. At the core is the main layer, the structural cell layer, which emphasizes the organic cells as structural building blocks of nature. An inner layer, the waterproof envelope of the building, is formed by the glass and aluminum mullion curtain-wall, and an outer layer provides a solar screen, emulating the cellular building block of all life forms.

In resolving complex organic geometries set to a full-scale building, there is a wealth of theoretical research on the subject of mesh structures, but very few built examples where these mesh geometries fully function as structural building elements and are built to architectural scale. To that extent, a historical approach to problem-solving was of little use in imagining and designing the cell wall, and instead innovative, original approach was sought out to achieve the elegantly complex and seemingly random organic patterns of the wall within the constraints of readily-available rectilinear building materials and structural realities.
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