Designed With Nature in Mind
Alumnus and lead Bell Museum architect David Dimond takes us on an insider’s tour.
David Dimond has designed prominent buildings all over the world, including a convention center in South Korea and the U.S. embassy in Chile, but rarely has he been so excited about a project as he is about the new Bell Museum on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.
Dimond (B.Arch. ’89), the son of an architect, is the design principal at the Minneapolis office of Perkins+Will. He is also a hometown boy, the youngest of eight children, who grew up in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood.
Despite coming of age surrounded by blueprints, Dimond didn’t immediately gravitate to the U’s architecture school. When he graduated from high school in the 1970s, his father’s business had hit a rough patch, making tuition money impossible to come by.
Instead, Dimond worked on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Plant, and later as a flight attendant. He was in his early 20s before he began studying architecture. By then he was married, and by the time he completed his degree, Dimond and his wife, Gail, had three children (the youngest graduated from the U in 2016 with her own M.Arch.).
On a recent tour of the new Bell with Dimond, it was obvious that even after 30 years of practice, his enthusiasm for architecture remains undiminished. He pointed out some of the many unique and noteworthy features he and his 14 Perkins+Will colleagues carefully worked into the 90,000 square foot museum.
Francis Lee Jaques’s famous dioramas influenced the building’s exterior design, says Dimond. “We wanted the building to be a series of beautiful ‘story’ boxes that would captivate audiences on the outside just as Jaques’s dioramas do on the inside.”
The building’s exterior is partially covered in Minnesota eastern white pine, thermally modified or “cooked” to eliminate most moisture (thus allowing it to last decades without further treatment). And the exterior steel, made from Minnesota iron ore, will naturally weather to create a permanent, protective patina.
To give the museum a “gateway to the University” street presence, it was built as close as possible to the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland Avenues. At night, the museum will glow from within. A stunning, enormous Minnesota ice age scene, complete with woolly mammoth, will be visible from the street.
The building is designed to have an open, airy feel. Two entrances allow for multiple groups of visitors to enter with ease. (Bell staff expect up to 50,000 schoolchildren per year.)
And large windows encourage patrons to experience what Dimond calls “a monumental connection to the outdoors.” These windows led to discussions with the curatorial staff, he says. “They were understandably worried about fading the exhibits.” The solution? The architects “carefully oriented the glass,” chose glass that blocks most UV light, and installed daylight sensors on window shades. All window glass is bird-safe, silk screened with ceramic lines that are invisible to humans from a distance.
Nature is woven into the design, inside and out. The lobby’s terrazzo-like polished concrete floor features a blue and green depiction of a flowing river. And, in the courtyard outside, there stands a trio of large stone cylinders, granite plugs pulled from the ground in Northern Minnesota during a long-ago mining operation.