Woolly-Headed

When Russian explorers first began discovering the remains of woolly mammoths in the Siberian tundra hundreds of years ago, they named the creature “mammut,” or “earth mole,” as they believed it lived underground and died on contact with sunlight. (Why else were the animals never seen alive—and always found half buried?) Since then we’ve learned a lot more about the shaggy elephant, which flourished during the Pleistocene era, disappeared 12,000 years ago, and weighed eight to ten tons. Scientists continue to research the extinct beast and the habitat in which it lived (the latter in the hopes of gaining insight into modern-day climate change). Starting in 2010, the locus for all things woolly and large will be the new World Mammoth and Permafrost Museum, a resourcefully designed structure in icy Yakutsk, Siberia.

The New York–based firm Leeser Architecture won an international competition earlier this year to design the museum, whose costs (estimated at $18 million) will be covered by the Russian Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), UNESCO, and Japan, among other donors. In Leeser’s renderings, the otherworldly museum sits lightly on the landscape, following the incline of the nearby Tchoutchour Mouran hill and elevated aboveground by 20-foot-tall concrete pylons, which prevent the heat generated by the building from melting the frozen soil below. Leeser’s proposal is sensitive to the region’s extreme climate: Yakutsk is the world’s largest city built on permafrost, and its temperature can range from –45°F in January to 90°F in July. “We treated the building a little bit like an animal, making it completely self-contained and able to generate its own energy,” says Thomas Leeser, principal of the firm. “Besides being energy-efficient, we wanted it to have as little impact on the environment as possible.”

To harness the region’s scarce sunlight, Leeser recommended a translucent double-glazed facade filled with Aerogel, a densely packed superinsulator. Conelike structures on the roof, tall enough to poke through the snow in winter, collect and redirect light to interior exhibition spaces and two indoor gardens. And the firm is looking into alternative power sources such as wind energy and photovoltaic panels to decrease the building’s dependence on the electrical grid.

The building’s interior, which measures 65,000 square feet, is divided into research areas and public museum space. Visitors ascend escalators sealed in climate-controlled tubes to the main hall or descend into the man-made caves that contain the museum’s highlight: preserved woolly mammoths. To prevent contamination, museumgoers will be permitted only to watch the scientists from a distance as they explore, among other things, the possibility of cloning the mammoth. (That’s right—the beast may once more walk the earth!) The presence of the scientists, the designers hope, will help give visitors a sense of the mammoth’s continuing allure and relevance. “Once you realize that it’s a science laboratory,” Leeser says, “this museum is actually more about the future than the past.”

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: November 2007

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