Walk beneath the curved ceiling of the Thompson Exhibition Building and you’ll be struck by how similar it feels to being engulfed by a crashing ocean wave. This dramatic effect is part of the many sea-inspired elements of the newly completed structure, designed by Centerbrook Architects, which serves as the keynote building for the 19-acre riverfront campus at Mystic Seaport, Museum of America and the Sea. The striking timber-framed building offers more than just bold design—energy efficient features are incorporated, including geothermal heating and cooling.
Inspired by the nearby sea, the Thompson Exhibition Building also takes design cues from the curved hulls of the wooden ships that sailed from the town of Mystic. Its exposed wooden trusses bring to mind the ribbed skeletal forms of marine animals. The building replaces the Seaport’s previous indoor-oriented exhibit spaces with an improved, 5,000-square-foot exhibit gallery, visitor reception, events space, retail shop, cafe, and outdoor terraces that connect to the new Donald C. McGraw Gallery Quadrangle.
Versatility was key to the design of the exhibition space, which features tall ceilings and demountable walls that can accommodate displays of varying sizes, from watercraft to fine art. Inspired by a sailing ship’s top timbers as well as the arc of a wave and whale vertebrae, the ceiling was constructed from curved lengths of glue-laminated Douglas Fir, a wood species preferred by New England ship builders after the Civil War.
The architects write: “Overall, the building stands for what we came to regard as “the geometry of the sea” – the spiral shape of sea life, the kinetic movement of ocean swells, the crash of waves on the shore, the billow of sails, and the faring of wooden hulls. Wood was the ideal material for these purposes because it can economically enclose a large clear-span space while forming complex organic geometries.”
Images © Jeff Goldberg