Alaska museum aims to reflect natural wonders

Modern architecture creates artful building to house state art

Posted: Monday, May 15, 2006

FAIRBANKS - The museum on the hill looks like breaching whales. Or maybe the swooping white walls bring to mind shimmering northern lights. Or ships passing. Or the Earth's great tectonic plates shoved up and over one another.

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Architect Joan Soranno was not aiming for any particular image of Alaska in her design of the expanded University of Alaska Museum of the North. She wanted only to capture the spirit of the 49th state, and she found her inspiration in the wild land.

"There are no straight lines in the landscape," she says. "This building very much plays off that."

More than a decade in the planning, and built for $42 million, including $12.4 million in private donations, the expanded museum is essentially complete and offers visitors a dazzling venue for Alaska art and natural history.

The center of the expansion is the 4,900-square-foot Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery. It opened May 1, just in time for busloads of tourists that appear annually for the midnight sun.

The territorial Legislature created the university in 1917, specifying it include a museum. It took until 1978 for the state Legislature to pay for a building designed for exhibits.

That $6.4 million appropriation bought a 39,000-square-foot box that opened in 1980. A fraction of the museum's art was crowded around its natural history treasures - the Ice Age's only restored steppe bison mummy, Blue Babe; Alaska's largest public display of gold, including a palm-size nugget; and displays from the rich history of the far-flung Native Alaskans.

The museum became a top attraction for visitors but an expansion, thought to be only a few years away, was put on hold.

Museum director Aldona Jonaitis, a native of New York City, was hired in 1993 with the charge to enlarge the museum. Along with a doctorate in art history and archaeology in Northwest coastal art, she brought a flare for fundraising and an energy that pushed the stalled dream.

Once Soranno and her firm, Hammel, Green and Abrahamson Inc. of Minneapolis, were on board to more than double the size of the museum, Jonaitis also clearly communicated that the expanded museum was not to be another box.

"She had a grand vision," Soranno said. "That vision was to create a stunning piece of architecture. She was never shy about that, which is music to every architect's ears."

Soranno found design inspiration in Alaska's ice fields.

"You see a glacier for the first time, everything about it is awesome," she said. "The shape, the form, the color, the blue was really memorable to me."

"The way ice moves, that's what a lot of this geometry takes the inspiration from, where ice that's broken flows different ways, and then ice shifting on top of one another, I found fascinating," she said, her hands moving as planes and reinforcing her words.

Visitors begin their museum experience before they get within a mile of the building. The museum can be seen from incoming jets or cars driving north from Anchorage. It's set high on a ridge overlooking the Tanana River Valley, a hundred miles of arboreal forest ending with the Alaska Range.

As much sculpture as shelter, the walls are a pearlescent aluminum composite, glowing white in daytime and alpenglow when the sun is low.

Soranno used the southern exposure and the mountain range to anchor visitors. Entering the building or stepping into the lobby from one of the galleries, they're likely to glimpse the horizon through one of two huge windows that punctuate the building's south side.

"You always come back," she said. "I guess there's this fundamental feeling. Even though the architecture is what I would call 'pretty aggressive,' I'd like to think it still defers to the landscape."

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