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National Nordic Museum

The National Nordic Museum is a cultural touchstone in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. At the turn of the 20th century, one out of every four immigrants to Washington state came from the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and many settled in Ballard. This Museum is the only in the world dedicated to telling the story of the five Nordic countries and the native Sami people; it is a home for the vital connections between the Nordic and Pacific Northwest (PNW) regions. The Museum’s new home at the center of the neighborhood stitches together Ballard’s working waterfront with its retail core and fills in the missing link of the regional Burke-Gilman trail, which was previously severed from Shilshole Bay and the Salish Sea to the west. As the Executive Director Eric Nelson describes, “Our front doors open to shops and restaurants, our back door to the working waterfront. The Museum stands at the intersection of history and hipsters.”

Connection to nature is inextricably linked to Nordic culture and is also widely valued by Pacific Northwesterners. The project’s integrated design team of landscape architects, architects and exhibit designers were inspired by the Nordic concept of Friluftsliv (open-air living), a concept defined by the Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen to describe the value of spending time in the natural world, in order to support a restorative experience. The site landscape from east to west is a gradient of bioregions shared by the Nordic countries and the PNW. Cool, shady forest slowly transitions to open, sunny meadows lush with grasses and wildflowers as visitors approach the Entry Plaza.

The streetscape of undulating shapes in the ground plane echoes the archipelago landforms of both Nordic and PNW regions, while reflecting the playful geometries of iconic 20th century Nordic textile and sculpture. These boldly shaped planted areas create a sinuous path along a 33-foot-wide sidewalk and shared-use trail experience, with alcoves adjacent to paths of travel.

Expressed in two volumes with a large open ‘Fjord Hall’ that extends into the landscape, the site planning and building form is inspired by the parallel histories of Nordic countries and Nordic America, and the relationship that began with 10th century Vinland journeys and 19th century migration, and continues today with cultural exchange. The Entry Plaza extends Fjord Hall outside, serving as the ‘mouth’ of the fjord as if the water has spilled out of the museum doors and begins to meet the open seas beyond. The public realm blurs from the sidewalk to the plaza, subtly shifting in paving and serving as a ceremonial terrace for events.

Aligned with the Museum’s mission to serve as a welcoming space for all, the plazas and gardens invite the community into both the indoor and outdoor common areas by creating connected and open non-ticketed areas throughout the project. The site and building design foregrounds community space by intentionally situating public amenities front and center.

A second entrance and gathering space is the Fisherman’s Sun Terrace. The fishing industry and working waterfront, viewed from this terrace, is approached along a path through a grove of birch trees harkening to journeys through forested hillsides. Here visitors experience geologic landforms that flank fjords such as Pulpit Rock in Norway. Glass folding doors blend interior and exterior, accommodating events and flexible ‘spillout’ from adjacent classrooms and the auditorium.

The East Garden counterpoints the Entry Plaza, extending the interior expression into a quiet courtyard garden with art and artifacts, culminating in a dragon masthead of a replica Viking boat. The simple lawn of the East Garden, inspired by lush horse pastures of farms in Finland and the Northwest, features a runestone and the oldest Finnish sauna currently functioning in the United States. This garden is bordered by coniferous trees underplanted with edible berries such as lingonberry and huckleberry. Twinflower, a native plant of the PNW and the unofficial national flower of Sweden, and Astrantia major ‘Star of Royal’, known to have graced the garden of the late notable Danish author Karen Blixen, reveal themselves in the spring.

Reflecting the global leadership of Nordic countries for sustainable design strategies and Seattle’s ‘Greenfactor’ sustainability metric which requires that at least 30% site be pervious, large native planting beds punctuate the site and roof. Sensitive to the surrounding endangered salmon habitat, site stormwater runoff is filtered by bioretention cells planted with natives or is filtered through the pervious paving to modular wetland treatment systems. The project achieved USGBC LEED Gold certification.

Photos by Bruce Damonte. Diagrams by Mithun.

Other designers involved in the design of landscape:
Architecture, Interior Design: Mithun
Irrigation Design: WBLA
Structural & Civil Engineer: Magnusson Klemencic Associates
MEP Engineer: PAE Consulting Engineers
Lighting Design; Acoustics; Audiovisual, Security & Telecom: Stantec
General Contractor: Kirtley-Cole Associates
Exhibit Designer: Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Nordic Design Collaborator: Juhani Pallasmaa
Project location: 2655 NW Market St, Seattle, WA 98107, USA
Design year: 2008-2015
Year Built: 2018

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