Curiosum by White Arkitekter
Location: Umeå, Sweden
Status: Completed, 2020
As a partner in the Wisdome venture – a national initiative for the interactive and digital visualisation of science – Umeå University required a high-tech dome theatre. This was the start of the transformation of the old Sliperiet complex into a new science centre in Umeå, Sweden. Our task was to transform the building for this purpose by way of a renovation and extension project to create space for the dome theatre and adapt the premises for the new venture.
With a grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the 110-year-old wood grinding mill was developed into an innovative science centre for inspiration, learning, research, innovation, and world-class collaboration. In order to ready the complex for its new purpose and a clearer public assignment, the building’s interior had to undergo major changes. The premises had to be opened up, with more visual contact between the floors. The new experimental workshops for educational activities, exhibition halls, workshops for digital manufacturing, and meeting places for school classes, among other things, placed new demands on everything from the building’s spatial connections to its technical installations. All these changes would have to harmonise with the predominant industrial feel of the building. Among other things, this has resulted in metal mesh being chosen instead of traditional suspended ceiling solutions, which makes pipework and installations more prominent.
And how do you construct a space to accommodate a hemispherical film screen? Our answer to this was to let the building’s exterior reflect its interior and allow the building to take the shape of a dome. The shape of the extension together with its façade, which has an integrated lighting design, allows the new activities to be seen from the outside. At the same time, we added an annual ring to the building, like a tree as it grows. The metal of the façade helps to create a contemporary industrial character that connects to the design of the original building for industrial activities. The symmetries, triangles, and façade perforations of the dome relate to the repeated symmetry at the very heart of the matter, to mathematics, to technology, and to the dark starry winter sky of Västerbotten. The dome reflects and conveys the function of the building as a science centre, with the task of increasing knowledge and interest in science and technology among all citizens. The façade’s varying play on light and colour communicates events and activities, allowing us to guess what’s going on inside.
It was a huge challenge to fit a big enough screen and all its associated technology within the small footprint we had available. The merging of the existing building from the early 20th century with a protected façade resulted in some pondering as to proportions, along with consultations with building conservationists on the original design of the façade and its windows and doors, for instance. Building a dome is a challenge, especially when it needs to house a screen. The viewing room with its screen, for example, is a space that requires total darkness in order to work well and not distract the eye with light before and during the presentation. Considerable emphasis has been placed on creating dark matt surfaces that don’t reflect light. And this applies to everything, right down to the smallest power cable.
At White, we’ve been involved from the first sketch right through to the completion of the project. We’re very pleased with the excellent collaboration we’ve enjoyed along the way. The company’s extensive expertise in terms of architecture, technology, lighting design, and visualisation has been pivotal for quality. Thanks to the close proximity of our office in Umeå to the building site, we were able to conduct frequent site visits. This enabled us to solve any issues that arose together with the contractors. We’re incredibly pleased to have come so close to our early vision for the project that we can see hardly any deviations. And this is despite using an advanced façade and shape, which have required a considerable amount of effort to solve. We’re also pleased that the aluminium-clad façade with its raw industrial character connects the dome to the site’s history and the original use of the main building in the mechanical industry.
Curiosum opened its doors in the autumn of 2020. The Umeå Science Centre will be a new science and technology attraction. The grand opening of the facility has been delayed and reformatted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, the building will be filled with content-rich international exhibitions as they travel around the globe visiting similar science centres. Meanwhile, school classes will get to see, experiment with, and discover new opportunities within the field of science.