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Check out Ralph Johnson's stunning nature-inspired Shanghai museum

The newly opened Shanghai Natural History Museum, designed by Perkins+Will’s Global Design Director Ralph Johnson, mimics the shape of a nautilus shell, and features natural elements throughout. 

April 22, 2015 |
Check out Ralph Johnson's stunning nature-inspired Shanghai museum

The building's shell shaped has earned it the nickname "Green Spiral" by the Chinese. All photos ©Steinkamp Photography, courtesy Perkins+Will

The Shanghai Natural History Museum, designed by Perkins+Will’s Global Design Director Ralph Johnson, houses a collection of more than 10,000 artifacts in a building designed with biomimicry—a design modeled on biological entities and processes.

The building is the museum’s new home after moving out of the 1920s-built Shanghai Cotton Exchange, where artifacts ranging from dinosaur remains to mummies from the Ming Dynasty had to share a space so small that no more than 1% of the museum’s entire collection could be displayed at a given time.

At 479,180 sf over six levels, the new facility offers ample space for the museum's collection (20 times more space, according to P+W), and also features a dramatic, 30-meter-tall atrium and an IMAX theater.

Wallpaper reports that the building’s design was inspired by the “pure geometry of a spiraling nautilus shell,” as it curves downward, with the lower three floors going underground.



Enclosed by the shell shape is a centrally placed pond that gives way to a series of rocky garden terraces in the style of a traditional Chinese "mountain and water" garden.

Natural elements are depicted across the building’s façades, including the central cell wall representing the cellular structure of plants and animals, the east living wall signifying earth’s vegetation, and the northern stone wall suggesting shifting tectonic plates and canyon walls eroded by rivers.

“The use of cultural references found in traditional Chinese gardens was key to the design,” said Johnson.  “Through its integration with the site, the building represents the harmony of human and nature and is an abstraction of the basic elements of Chinese art and design.”



According to P+W, the museum is a bioclimatic building in that it responds to the sun by using an intelligent building skin that maximizes daylight and minimizes solar gain. The oval courtyard pond provides evaporative cooling, while the temperature of the building is regulated with a geothermal system that uses energy from the earth for heating and cooling. 

Rainwater is collected from the vegetated roof and stored in the pond along with recycled grey water. All of the energy features of the museum are part of exhibits which explain the story of the museum.

The museum is in the Jing An District, in the center of downtown Shanghai, and within the Jing An Sculpture Park.


Shanghai Natural History Museum from Perkins+Will on Vimeo.


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