Status: Competition (2015)
Location: Erfurt, Germany
Climate: Oceanic / maritime, Temperate
Materials: Plastic, Wood
Budget: 19.900.000 €
Scale: 4.718 ㎡ Medium
Ratio: 4.217,89 €/㎡
Types: Cultural, Museum
Architecture, structure, technical installations, landscaping and exhibits form an integrated system with a shared purpose: to abstractly and artificially emulate natural environments in greenhouses, and to synthesise those settings or ecosystems and their conditions in terms of space and time, but also of material and energy, adapting to the container’s limitations of scale. The goal is to offer audiences a comprehensive tour that will translate into a wide variety of memorable experiences: architectural and landscape experiences, thematic and exhibition experiences, even biological and life experiences.
A huge loop straight out of nature
The two settings—desert and tropical—are opposing extremes of an enormous geological and biological cycle or loop, present on Planet Earth and represented in these greenhouses. In this great cycle, over millions of years deserts can become jungles, and jungles can give way to deserts. Yet, strange as it may seem, science has proved that these distant ecosystems have a constant and simultaneous interdependence.
Those who visit these spaces will come to understand that complex interrelationship as they follow an itinerary, which is also a loop between contrasting conditions. Desert and Tropics can be explored separately, but they can also be experienced one after the other, as adjoining spaces, clearly illustrating the many ways in which they are connected. One ends where the other begins. Depending on visitor numbers, it will also be possible to control the flow of foot traffic so that on peak days the itinerary can only be done in one direction, while on days with fewer visitors people will be free to move in either direction. As this tour has two levels, visitors will also have to ascend and descend: a steady slope in the desert, and a gentle floating ramp among the trees in the jungle.
Vertical maze and flat horizon
Conceptually, the jungle as a system represents density, the vertical conquest of animals, trees and plants by the habitat, water and the sun. Yet, in the opposite sense, it is the horizontality lost amid its thick, irregular growth. This flatness is only found in jungle clearings, in water levels and coursing rivers, or in its verdant mass seen from a distance.
The desert is a hazy, endless horizontal plane where the boundary between heaven and earth is blurred by a mirage, broken only by the odd singular feature, scudding clouds or shifting sands. Yet for all its vastness, it is also the vertical link between humans and the sun, our point of reference in the sky that invariably casts our shadows on the ground.
In that elemental definition, the two settings have been characterised as opposites, allowing the vertical to dominate in the tropical forest and the horizontal in the desert. One is humid, diverse and a bit more sombre, offering various routes to be explored. The other is scorching and arid, bright and open, seeming vaster than it really is, and here the itinerary follows a clear, linear path.
Architecture as scenography
The tropical rainforest consists of clusters of palms and other trees that will eventually tower to the greenhouse ceiling, but it also incorporates simple devices that will allow plants to grow or find purchase at different heights. Plants will hang under the ramp, climb mesh-covered cylinders standing in for real trees, and colonise one side of the space as a vertical garden. Pools of water reflect that verticality and enhance the impression of the ramp as a delicate ribbon in the middle of the space. The building’s structure is both manifest and concealed behind the vegetation, on the walls and roof.
In the desert, a uniform translucent suspended ceiling will diffuse the light to create the illusion of a bright sky, hiding all roofing and structural elements and eliminating shadows. The outer edges of the greenhouse are concealed behind huge panels with reflective membranes that infinitely replicate the landscape, recreating its vastness and simulating a distant horizon. The entire floor ascends in a spiral near the centre of the space. When reflected in the mirrors, this subtle alteration in the landscape creates a territory of seemingly enormous dimensions. Visitors move along the perimeter, where the slope is barely perceptible, and see themselves reflected alongside rocks, outcrops and plants typical of arid ecosystems.
The result is an integrated installation, where the architecture is not just an envelope and the exhibition is not just its contents; a place where the presence of scenography is limited to specific, obvious elements, making no attempt to camouflage architectural or technical components, and where plants and animals can have an modest presence in suitable conditions without the need to literally replicate their real habitats.
Landscape «cut and paste»
In both environments, the Tropenhaus and the Wüstenhaus, various landscapes are synthesised in circular areas and elements of varying sizes that seem to have been «cut and pasted». This formal and functional method has been used to design a peculiar landscape, «snipping» fragments from different desert and tropical settings all over the world.
Each fragment is a circular area of varying dimensions that seems to have been lifted out of its original context and dropped into the greenhouse. Reality is only imitated in the details, accurately replicated in the fragments; on a larger scale, it is merely suggested and organised in an obviously artificial, abstract way, avoiding any resemblance to clichéd theme park simulations. There is no scenography in the sense of a set designed to mimic reality; instead, the scenery is a blend of real landscape and architecture that offers a more contemporary interpretation. Like works of art, landscape and nature are perceived and translated or reassembled in a different way that nevertheless conveys their most essential features.
In the jungle setting, these circles are occupied by all kinds of plant species and a few animals, forming islands separated by continuous flooring. Each island represents a specific landscape or a particular theme. Some of them seem to be elevated, while others look like depressions in the floor; they can even appropriate inaccessible areas under the ramp. Furthermore, there are at least two larger areas designed as circular pools, providing a habitat for aquatic plants and regulating humidity levels. This diverse array of curving elements is accompanied by the aforementioned mesh-covered cylinders and a few metal rings to support any smaller installations we may want to hang from the ceiling.
In the desert these circular islands become flat areas along the tour itinerary, landscapes and themes that follow the slope in a linear sequence. They are also pieces or fragments of deserts from across the globe, stolen and reconstructed to form a single environment. Some will have rock formations or outcrops, clusters of plants, benches for sitting and sand. Visitors cross this surface following a circular path that connects the different areas.
To enhance the effect of the perimeter mirrors, some of these areas are quarter or half circles; the reflection completes the circle and creates the illusion that these areas extend beyond the walls of the building. The space between circles, a constant throughout the itinerary, could be dedicated primarily to the Danakil Desert. The surface area of the desert setting is completed by three closed, interconnected cylindrical spaces devoted to specific educational contents: a 180º audiovisual installation, a heat chamber, and a room with photographs. The design of this new indoor landscape is obviously connected to the historic outdoor rose garden, with its unique arrangement in circular spaces.
In this project, display resources serve three main purposes: the first is scenographic, represented in the synthesised landscapes and ecosystems; the second is didactic, rounding out the scenography with graphics, photographs, audiovisuals or interactive features; and the third is environmental, as they are involved in the energy regulation of a greenhouse structure, as parts of the architecture and infrastructure, capable of supporting the life of various species inside. The idea is to convey these three aspects to visitors through entertaining educational experiences. By addressing these three aspects simultaneously, we can construct an ideal environment consisting of different places, contents, display resources, scales of observation and moments.
The landscape design and charted itineraries will constitute the first level of interpretation, divided into different moments and places and presented in a rigorous yet entertaining way. Every step and detail is a different theme, a fragment of landscape in a circle, a discovery and a learning experience, while a general overview reveals transversal notions, comparisons and common traits. The artificial construction of a riotous green mass in the tropical rainforest, or of an imaginary horizon made of mirrors in the desert, will be the principal scenographic clues that allow visitors to connect the fragments into one harmonious whole, which must be experienced with the senses.
On the second level of interpretation, we should introduce exhibits that elaborate on the information presented. Within the desert landscape, one room contains a panoramic audiovisual production that combines images from various deserts at different hours of the day and night, recorded as time lapses, with their distinctive landscapes and species. This is a good opportunity for illustrating the constant change and richness of these ecosystems, which often seem more immutable than they really are. Intense heat, cold and light; the expanse of the desert and its geographical features, the blurred perception of the horizon, the scattered presence of living beings and their traces, the colours of geology and its minerals; the ever-shifting dunes and winds; the comparative relationship between different deserts. There is also a heat chamber in which we can accurately reproduce the temperature and humidity conditions of a desert. A final space could contain a combination of photographs showing the full spectrum of the desert ecosystem, from micro to macro. In the jungle these display resources can be more scattered or fragmented. Photo panels, a few video screens, animal feeders, signposts with informative texts or illustrations, hidden loudspeakers playing characteristic sounds (rain, waterfall, animals, storms, etc.) and the odd interactive device.
Thirdly, it is important to show visitors how the building and its technical systems, combined with the museography and exhibition layout, are reflected in the project’s energy-efficient design. The use of facades and roofs designed to make the most of sunlight, the choice of materials and architectural components, the HVAC systems and how they are regulated in relation to outside conditions, the energy efficiency achieved by combining several greenhouses in a single system, the structural design, the distribution of services, etc. And within the recreated environments themselves, there are several noteworthy display resources, such as the cylindrical plant bases equipped with misting nozzles, the water pools, the light diffusers in the ceilings or the reflective membranes, not to mention the fact that each exhibit has been carefully situated where it can best help to maintain the indoor environmental conditions.