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Anchorage Museum by David Chipperfield Architects, Anchorage, Alaska, USA

Chipperfield seeks to project Anchorage’s new museum into the city and at the same time establish the building as a lookout to the ancient and omnipresent drama of the surrounding natural landscapes. Photography by Christian Richters

Up in the far north of the USA, remote from the other 49 states, Alaska is characterised by spectacular natural landscapes and an extreme climate. To some extent, this is at the root of its allure, but both people and buildings need an innate hardiness in order to survive up here. Though flushed with sudden prosperity after the discovery of oil, Alaska retains a distinct sense of being at a frontier. Anchorage, on the west coast, is a significant transport hub and administrative centre with a population of about 350,000 people. One of two or three small cities in this vast and sparsely populated state, it is a place where construction more often than not represents a pragmatic response to remoteness and the unremittingly harsh climate, where day-time winter temperatures can plummet to -15˚C.

The city’s first museum was founded in 1968, prompted by a mayor who claimed that ‘every good city needs a good museum so its residents can learn their history and heritage, and find roots in their community’. When it opened, it contained just three paintings and a very modest collection of artefacts. However, as those holdings gradually grew, subsequent expansions added more space, culminating in a 1986 accretion designed by Mitchell/Giurgola Architects.

The new Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, which opened in May, stands alongside those earlier buildings and is connected to them. And while Mitchell/Giurgola designed a building on two floors with spaces focused internally on a top-lit courtyard, the latest building by David Chipperfield has been planned within five parallel strips of space, turned on end to create a museum that is distinctly vertical and outward-looking.

In contrast to the original museum, which was predominantly solid and built of masonry, this new building is clad in a shimmering glass skin that offers differing qualities of light as well as glimpses into and out of the museum. It announces its presence in the city by assertively presenting a large billboard-like facade that also provides a series of lookouts to the spectacular natural landscapes beyond. The urban park created in front of the museum will also provide a much-needed new public space for downtown Anchorage.

The impetus for the new building came from a substantial gift to the museum and the need to house more than 600 artefacts offered on long-term loan from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. In 2003, museum director Patricia Wolf actively sought ways to provide additional space by encouraging the search for an architect of international standing to create a significant new building.

Appointed as museum architect in that same year, Chipperfield said: ‘The role of the museum is to enthuse, excite and inform through the display of objects and texts. The beauty and power of objects, both fabricated and natural, is something that can and cannot be explained. That is why we return to look at them.’

Talking about the new museum in Alaska, he noted that ‘the objects and artworks of the Anchorage Museum are not only fascinating in isolation, but are intimately linked to particular people and their relationship to an extraordinary land’. He added: ‘The landscape that is the setting for the city of Anchorage is a continual reminder of the unusual dominance of the natural environment. It is rare in our modern world that the presence of nature is so unmediated.’

The architect’s desire to erase barriers between people and things, and at the same time connect the newly enlarged collection in Anchorage to the natural environment around it, emphatically defines this project. And although the city, with its predictable North American street grid and collection of austere, boxy buildings, is somewhat anonymous, it is the views of the towering snow-capped Chugach Mountains and wide expanses of sky and ocean glimpsed down many streets that give the place a very particular character.

Chipperfield’s design sought to project the new museum into the city, and at the same time establish the building as a lookout to the ancient and omnipresent drama of the surrounding natural landscapes. The plan is deceptively simple. New spaces are arranged in a series of five linear blocks aligned on a north-south axis and connected to the western facade of the existing museum. And while those buildings vary in height from two to four floors, and are clearly expressed as distinct blocks, the internal spaces are interconnected. The main entry level, which conspicuously fronts the still-evolving urban park, is filled with the predictable range of uses: a generous entrance lobby that also connects to the existing building, an information desk, a shop, a resource centre and a café. That lobby also connects to a generous sculpted stair that threads its way up through the building to a new Arctic Studies Center, offices, a children’s gallery, a series of temporary galleries and several spectacular lookouts. This stair, together with the lookouts high up in the building, were captured in one of Chipperfield’s early sketches and are important compositional elements that clearly anchor and define the museum.

Each of the five bars described in the plan is wrapped in a tight skin of glazing. The harsh Alaskan climate tends to shape built form, with external envelopes designed to provide few places where snow or ice can settle. So Chipperfield has developed a smooth skin made up of frameless glass panels of varying opacities.

The floor-to-floor-height panels consist of several layers of different types of glass and lining materials to control the amount of light and degrees of transparency throughout the building. All panels are fritted with an applied regular pattern of vertical mirrored strips, giving the building an overall reflective quality while also making it possible to control natural daylight. Where reduced levels of light are required - in galleries and in the Arctic Studies Center, for example - then the inner layers are opaque. This skin, albeit deceptively simple in appearance, impressively integrates cladding, screening and environmental systems. Developed following an extensive series of material studies, the invention of systems and a considerable amount of constructional ingenuity, it provides a high-performance envelope in this remote city while at the same time imparting an almost icy quality to the building that makes it look surprisingly delicate.

Clearly, Chipperfield’s design is inspired by light and lightness. Such inspiration originates not only in the familiar paradigms of modernism, but also in his considerations of the unique characteristics of place, where daylight is precious and where many of the museum’s artefacts display an impressive and intrinsic sense of lightness rooted in economy.

Many of the kayaks, sledges and shelters designed and built by the Arctic’s indigenous communities have extraordinarily delicate lightweight structures - exemplars of formal and material efficiency - while layered garments, such as those made by Aleutian Islanders, use sea lion gut to create gossamer-like, translucent coverings.

Reflecting on the nature of the modern museum, Mies van der Rohe once commented that ‘the first problem was to establish the museum as a centre for the enjoyment, not the internment of art’. He went on to suggest that if that could be achieved then ‘the barrier between the artwork and the living community is erased’. The original desire to create the first museum in Anchorage embodied similar goals, and Chipperfield’s latest addition impressively builds on those ideals.

Architect David Chipperfield Architects, London, UK
Associate architect Kumin Associates
Structural engineers Magnusson Klemencic Associates, BBFM Engineers
Services engineer Affiliated Engineers NW
Landscape architect Charles Anderson Landscape Architects

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