What a creation! Darwin Centre's new wing is both a mystery and a triumph of design

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It is described by its architects as a cocoon. Actually, it is more like a gargantuan pebble, or even the smoothly plastered nose of a Jumbo jet encased, much like Damien Hirst's shark, in a vast glass display case in London's Cromwell Road.

How apt that the new £78m wing of the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, which opens to the public on 15 September, manages to suggest something evolving yet not quite identifiable. But that's precisely the point of this surprisingly self-effacing building, whose carefully tailored minimalism is not so much striking as pale and interesting.

The museum's Danish architects, CF Moller, may speak confidently of their new "icon" in South Kensington but, thankfully, it is nothing of the kind. Compared to the museum's original 2002 extension, the new wing stands deferentially next to the ornate haunch of its Grade I-listed Victorian terracotta tower. Inside, deference evaporates in a faintly surreal realm, in which potential architectural melodrama is coolly redeemed by the matt ivory stucco lucida covering the 60m-long pebble.

This host organism for the new wing's exhibition spaces, rising 30m up through the atrium, is both a mystery and a triumph: how can the biggest, curved sprayed-concrete structure in Europe look weightless?

There's nothing mysterious about the result, though – this is a new kind of science experience in which the pursuit of research becomes more or less public property.

"Many people love the Natural History Museum for its iconic Victorian building," said Neil Greenwood, programme director for the Darwin Centre. "However, through the Darwin Centre, we wanted to challenge this traditional perception and highlight the work of our scientists, and the importance of our collections."

Paul Bowers, director of the new wing's public spaces, added: "We wanted an exquisite shell that's beautiful to flow through."

The building's lead designer, Anna Maria Indrio, says that the new building "has completely changed the Natural History Museum's relationship with the site, from being an introvert to an extrovert building." Surely not. Alfred Waterhouse's original architecture has always been a riveting and distinctly outré mélange of star turns and engrossing detail. There is absolutely nothing shy about the 19th-century architecture, or its interiors.

Ms Indrio is, however, right to suggest that images of the pebble will become a new brandmark for the museum. But as the building's pale, set-piece architectural moment can be seen only faintly through the glass façade of the atrium, this brandmark is anything but extrovert architecture – and all the better for it.

The Darwin Centre's new wing was designed at the same time as the doomed V&A Spiral, created by Daniel Libeskind and Cecil Balmond.

Unlike the architecturally radical Spiral, Moller's "quiet" architecture managed to attract the necessary funding from the Heritage Lottery, the Wellcome Trust and a phalanx of private donors.

The simplicity of the pebble and its exhibition route is matched by the new clarity it brings to the way the Darwin Centre's 220 scientists can now move between the old and new buildings, and into a doubled amount of laboratory space.

From next Tuesday, inquisitive members of the public will be able to rise seven storeys in sparkling glass lifts to get into the pebble, before descending in batches of about 200 at a time to follow a trail of discovery laid out for them inside.

They will glimpse a fraction of the 20 million entomological and botanical specimens filed away in 3.3km of temperature and humidity controlled "compaction" cabinets in the lower segment of the structure. But they will see scientists at work and, sometimes, be able to quiz tweezering boffins through glass panels fitted with two-way microphones.

Somehow, given the contemporary trend to present art or science as a blur of faintly trivial entertainment, the Darwin Centre's new wing is not packed with interactive kit. On the other hand, it is well chosen, generously spaced out, and mounted in such a way that it conveys a sense of seriously pursued discovery – unlike the new wing's Attenborough Studio, a vividly over-the-top lecture space whose pentagram-designed fibreglass seating evokes a Star Wars briefing room.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?