Shanghai’s Natural History Museum is at one with its collection

The Jing'an Sculpture Park
Perkins+Will's new design for the Natural History Museum blends into the Jing'an Sculpture Park, surrounded by the soaring tower blocks of downtown Shanghai
(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)

With a captivating collection of over 10,000 artefacts - including everything from dinosaurs to deep-sea monsters and mummies from the Ming Dynasty - the new home for the Shanghai Natural History Museum, designed by internationally acclaimed practice Perkins+Will, captures the essence of nature through biomimicry.

Previously housed in the former 1920s Shanghai Cotton Exchange, the old museum suffered from space constraints and was able to display just one percent of its entire collection at any given time. In contrast, the generous new structure accommodates six levels of exhibition space and offices, a 30m high entrance lobby and an IMAX cinema, covering a total area of 45,086 sqm.

Inspired by the pure geometry of a spiralling nautilus shell, the building curves elegantly downwards, with the lower three floors dropping below ground level. Enclosed within this 'shell', the serene surface of a centrally placed pond gives way to a series of rocky garden terraces, in the style of a traditional Chinese 'Mountain and Water' garden.

Global Design Director Ralph Johnson headed the project, which lies in the Jing'an Sculpture Park in central downtown Shanghai. 'Through its integration with the site, the building represents the harmony of man and nature and is an abstraction of the basic elements of Chinese art and design,' he says on the concept.

In keeping with the building's nature-inspired approach, each of the four external walls symbolises a separate element of the natural world: the living wall represents forests; the north wall is a rock face relating to Earth's geology and plate tectonics; there is a glazed façade harnessing the power of the sun; whilst the internal lining of the 'shell' displays a beautiful white lattice in a cellular pattern - combining an intricate multilayered glass, concrete and steel construction - which references the complex system of a living organism. 

The spiralling planted rooftop becomes a fifth façade, overlooked by the high-rise apartment blocks which surround the sculpture park. Accessible to visitors, the roof provides a viewing platform over the garden at its heart, and doubles up as a rainwater collection system with storage in the courtyard pond.

Sustainable design solutions (such as greywater recycling and a geothermal energy system) are displayed as part of the exhibition and reveal the story of the museum, explaining the benefits of environmental strategies.The abundance of natural references throughout ensure that the museum's architecture becomes as much a part of the exhibit as the collection it hosts.

Roof of building

Inspired by the form of a nautilus shell, the building spirals up out of the ground, topped by an accessible green roof

(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)

Curving cellular-patterned wall

The building's most striking architectural feature is a curving cellular-patterned wall which delicately frames the courtyard pond

(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)

Building features bioclimatic design,

The building features bioclimatic design, which uses an intelligent skin to respond to the sun and maximise daylight, while controlling solar gain

(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)

The central atrium rises

The central atrium rises 30m, with dappled sunlight streaming in through the glass, concrete and steel facade

(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)

Rocky terraces in the style of a Chinese 'Mountain

Enclosed within the curve of the 'shell', a pond cascades down rocky terraces in the style of a Chinese 'Mountain and Water' garden. "The use of cultural references found in traditional Chinese gardens was key to the design", explains head architect, Ralph Johnson

(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)

Wall symbolizes the Earth's vegetation

Each elevation represents a different natural element. The eastern living wall symbolizes the Earth's vegetation

(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)

A cell walled building

The internal cell-inspired wall's complicated geometry required detailed computer modelling

(Image credit: Perkins+Will's)