An ambitious client in far-away Bulgaria was seeking a first-of-its-kind children’s museum and in response, a world-class architecture and design firm, a movie studio, an indoor rock gym manufacturer and a large group of scientists (among many others) came together to build it. Muzeiko is not only Bulgaria’s first children’s museum and first LEED Gold building, but it is a shining example of interdisciplinary and international collaboration.
A Novel Idea
The concept of a children’s museum or science center is a novel one in Bulgaria, where they just did not exist. In fact, there hadn’t been a new museum built in 50 years. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund was established by the U.S. Congress and President George H.W. Bush by way of the Support for East European Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The fund grew from $55 million to over $400 million through successful investment and in 2008 BAEF’s Board formed the America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF) to address lingering economic and social issues. A portion of available funds was earmarked for cultural and education spending as this groundbreaking project was born with the knowledge that a high percentage of children’s museums lead to significant improvements in regional infrastructure.
ABF solicited a number of firms around the United States and Europe to submit proposals to an architectural competition to design a very modern international children’s museum in the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia. ABF was committed to partnering with an American design firm because America is the birthplace of children’s museums. The goal was to attract school groups and families by creating a destination for informal STEM education, purpose-built to embody the philosophy and objectives of both children’s and science museums.
Under One Roof
Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (New York) has a 30-year history of success in designing children’s museums and science centers, so it was unsurprising when they were invited to participate in the architectural design competition and subsequently proposed the winning concept. It was very appealing to ABF to work with a multi-disciplinary firm that could develop the overall concept through many different mediums.
“Unlike a lot of other firms, we were able to do the building, the exhibits, the graphics, the interiors, the site-planning, the branding—all under one roof. It speaks more to the fact that we are an interdisciplinary firm in that we don’t draw hard lines between all these different practices,” says firm Founding Principal Lee H. Skolnick, FAIA.
Research and Testing
ABF had already begun research by initiating a Bulgarian-based study to elicit preconceived notions and opinions from local children, parents, and teachers about museums, informal education, and what topics the potential museum might address. The results underscored Bulgarian unfamiliarity with the concept of children’s museums. Parents were concerned about admissions costs and teachers questioned how it could connect to the school system and curriculum.
For their research, LHSA+DP enlisted the help of the ABF staff. One woman, Vesela Gercheva in particular was invaluable because of her academic background and experience facilitating small yet successful pilot “Children’s Corner” programs in traditional museums in Bulgaria. Together, they assembled a team of more than 85 Bulgarian scientists, artists and educators to collaborate on the museum from initial brainstorming sessions to providing specific science content and even aiding in prototyping. The project team then took concepts for the museum on the road to several cities in Bulgaria for testing workshops with families. The LHSA+DP team felt strongly that every facet of the finished museum should be meaningful, applicable and culturally relevant to Bulgarians, so it was imperative to them that the collaborating and testing groups be comprised of locals.
Culture in Concept
In response to ABF’s wish for a modern exploratory learning environment, LHSA+DP proposed a facility that would be open and transparent in both a literal and metaphorical way, inviting the public into its heart. The exhibits were to become an interior landscape that would symbolize the exterior world from urban to rural and past to future. Expressive and dynamic forms would encourage sensory engagement and discovery over three floors. The integration of architecture, design and exhibit content would be seamless and uniquely linked to Sofia and Bulgarian culture.
With that goal, LHSA+DP made a big move to use environmental graphics as an integral part of the architecture. “That’s where the ‘little mountains’ came in. Each one of them has an abstracted pattern on it that is derived from indigenous Bulgarian handicrafts. The red one is based on Bulgarian embroidery patterns, the green one is taken from glazed ceramics and the third one is brown, and relates to Bulgarian woodcarving. These elements were introduced to enliven the interior but also relate very strongly to the heritage of artisanal crafts”, says Skolnick. Carrying the architectural volumes and their patterns into the interior design spoke not only to the idea of transparency but also to Bulgarian design culture.
Branding and a Mascot
The decision to name the museum Muzeiko, meaning “little museum,” set the LHSA+DP team on their path to developing the branding and identity for the institution. Because the facets and triangular shapes used in the creation of the little mountains lent themselves very neatly to forming letters as well, a synergy was forged between logo and building.
The resulting M of Muzeiko has a creased effect, and that letter led to the design of the mascot—a friendly character in the shape of the letter M—appropriately named Muzeiko, who has been adapted to the various backgrounds and colors throughout the various themed areas of the building. Muzeiko the mascot has many incarnations, from a dinosaur skeleton to a bat to a crystal, yet does not lose its identity.
Keeping it Local
LHSA+DP determined early on in the process that it was vital to maintain Muzeiko as a project for Bulgarians and as much as possible, by Bulgarians. While they named an American firm to do the fabrication project management—Maltbie, a long-time LHSA+DP collaborator—much of the fabrication itself was completed by contracted Bulgarian firms. Finding local fabricators had the added benefit of cutting costs, but wasn’t without challenges, as this type of project was non-existent there. Maltbie ended up contracting with a Sofia-based movie studio because of their mastery of scenery and prop creation for much of the scenic fabrication, a local millwork fabricator and even a leading manufacturer of indoor climbing walls, Walltopia, all of which were local.
The same philosophy of keeping it local applied to the experiential graphics; LHSA+DP came up with the initial concepts but were very concerned about inadvertently using western conventions that might look literally foreign to visitors, so they partnered with local graphic design and media firms. Of the graphic design firm, Skolnick says, “We interviewed many studios in Sofia. There was tremendous talent, but none of them had ever done museum graphics. So we needed to find a studio that could adapt to the idea of environmental graphics. The studio we chose, Post Studio, was fantastic. Our goal and the clients’ goal as well, was to empower them to do this type of work themselves in Bulgaria moving forward.” LHSA+DP also worked with a Sofia-based video game production studio, BonArt Studio, to produce the digital interactives for Muzeiko.
The leadership at LHSA+DP considered sending team members to Bulgaria for extended periods, but because of their decision to contract local architecture firm A&A Architects to help supervise construction and go through the approvals process, overseas visits were somewhat minimized. Even so, every six weeks or so a team member would visit for a few days, depending on what portion of the project required attention.
Simultaneously, the highly-skilled LHSA+DP interpretive services team was working with the 85 scientists, artists and educators, assigning them content-related “homework,” the results of which they then distilled, simplified and molded to fit the young museum audience. The process was a very iterative one and took shape significantly more slowly than most of the design work. Skolnick likens it to gumbo, “You keep adding ingredients, and let it simmer, then add some more to it, and finally, it all comes together. It was a total of about two and a half years of solid work.”
A World View
Approaching the museum, visitors get a clear view of the concept of the little mountains and the desire to keep an element of transparency; the large sculptural forms penetrate the glass façade and become defining elements on the interior as well. Both of the entrances of Muzeiko feed into an open lobby space, where the most notable element is a huge three-story tree that penetrates the floors and reaches up into a skylight.
On the main level, the little mountains surround the lobby space: a café with seating, ticketing and a gift shop are encased in part of the green little mountain, the brown little mountain encloses seating, while the red mountain contains the entrance to exhibits, coat check and bathrooms. Once visitors pass through ticketing, they have three floors of interactive exhibits to choose from, including a changing exhibits gallery. The subject of the first temporary exhibit is American innovation and invention, which is purposely designed to be modular to travel to other parts of the country with ease.
The lower level exhibits explain things happening underground and represent the past through an exploration of archaeology, geology and paleontology. The next floor up corresponds to the present through explanations of natural and urban systems. The top floor showcases the future, space travel and the sky through new technologies. The entire roof, called the Skyloft, is also accessible; half of it is a planted green roof with native sedum and shrubs and there’s an outdoor amphitheater, a climbing wall and a weather station. The remainder is home to solar panels. These sustainable additions to Bulgaria’s first LEED Gold building also provide educational interpretation opportunities throughout the exhibits.
There are murals and experiential graphics throughout the space, which set the stage and keep the graphic language consistent throughout. A uniform system of graphic panel templates was created, from larger broad-theme exhibit panels to smaller more focused directive panels that encouraged or directed activity at points of interactivity within the exhibit space, naturally featuring the Muzeiko mascot. Even in stairwells, the LHSA+DP team didn’t want to waste an opportunity to make the experience of climbing stairs (and burning calories) interpretive.
Developing this system of murals was a long process of distilling down colors and forms and illustrating different environments so that each is distinctive, but not disruptive for visitors as they move through the exhibits. The intention was for the illustration style to be playful, yet sophisticated and modern, and for it to enhance learning for children.
The exhibits also display 15 original game-based digital interactives. They address topics such as cave painting, earthquakes and satellite communication, as well as a host of environmental and social issues, and also more specific challenges, such as growing vegetables in space.
Lost in Translation
On such a large project, there are bound to be challenges. Add to that a language gap and first-time museum fabricators and things were downright daunting at times.
A specific challenge for the LHSA+DP team in the beginning was understanding local Bulgarian culture. It quickly became evident that the translation of ideas into experiential graphic design applications would require a keen understanding of the user-groups and the nature of the visual language used to engage children and families within Sofia. For example, while the owl is the symbol of Sofia, and would seem to make sense to integrate, it was completely over-used in children’s centers, daycare centers and educational contexts, so the team analyzed all the logos for early childhood education programs and themed entertainment in the area in order to create something novel yet still understandable to Bulgarian families. At the same time, the client ABF felt strongly about incorporating American flag imagery without being culturally offensive. So, LHSA+DP engaged in an iterative process to hone the design of the logo and experiential graphic design for the museum accordingly.
Another challenge was a more obvious one: language. While the client team members all spoke fluent English, there were still occasional misunderstandings due to translation. However, the subcontractors and fabricators often did not speak any English, so in many cases, LHSA+DP had to rely on the client to translate. The most difficult language issue was in print, though. All the signage throughout Muzeiko is bilingual. “Something that you have a maximum 25 word count for, when you translate from English to Bulgarian takes up a lot more space,” says Skolnick. The other problem lay in the translation itself; the English text they wrote was laden with colloquialisms and idioms that usually did not exist in Bulgarian, so a great effort was made to ensure the text made sense in both languages.
The obstacles were not limited to culture or language, though. For all the Bulgarian subcontractors and fabricators, this was the first time building museum exhibits and, in many cases, working with higher-quality production methods and technologies commonplace in the U.S., like the custom-made digitally printed high-pressure laminate faceted panels used for the little mountains. It took dozens upon dozens of samples to get the right color range, pattern scale, clarity and consistency. There was a lot of sampling for the interior exhibits as well, due to durable signage with embedded graphics being largely unknown to the fabricators; at times they came back with applied vinyl letters, a clear no-go for a children’s museum.
On the building itself, the application of fritted glass as a graphic element created a challenge as it was a critically important and subtle architectural element. “There was a lot of back and forth with the fabricator to get them to understand what we wanted to achieve. We wanted the building to be very transparent, a big antidote to this whole closed society. We used the fritting to achieve that, and it was just so challenging to get it right,” remarks Skolnick, “of course, the larger challenges centered on the great responsibility placed on us to introduce a spirit of curiosity, exploration and discovery.”
With its interactive concept and diversity of programs aimed at informal learning, early childhood and science literacy, Muzeiko achieved its objective of becoming a significant player in the lives of local children and families, but also a tremendous asset to traditional classroom educators. The Museum reached its yearly projected 100,000 visits within the first five months of opening and has served over 241 Bulgarian schools. Since the museum’s opening, the city of Sofia has implemented a number of improvements in the areas surrounding the museum. Public transport to the facility is being promoted and the city has installed new sidewalks, lighting, signage, ramps and art installations, breathing life into the area.
The LHSA+DP team has taken away many valuable lessons from working on Muzeiko, and they look forward to creating more opportunities to bring the outdoors in and enhance dialogues with nature and the environment. The team is proud of their groundbreaking work in Sofia and the role it plays there, but they aren’t the only ones feeling a sense of accomplishment. “All of the subcontractors and workers were all at the opening with their families and kids, with tears in their eyes. They were so proud of the fact that they had been integral to the creation of this place, because, in Bulgaria, there’s nowhere else like it,” says Lee Skolnick.
Project Name: Muzeiko – America for Bulgaria Children’s Museum
Client: America for Bulgaria Foundation
Location: Sofia, Bulgaria
Open Date: October 1, 2015
Project Area: 35,000 sq.ft.
Experiential Graphics Budget: US$1 million
Overall Project Budget: US$21 million
Wayfinding Design: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (U.S.)
Exhibition Design: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Interactive Experience Design: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, BonArt Studio (Bulgaria)
Placemaking and Identity Design: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, Poststudio (Bulgaria)
Design Architect: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Architect of Record: A&A Architects (Bulgaria)
Landscape Architect: Studio Gurkov (Bulgaria)
Planning: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Exhibit Fabrication and Management: Maltbie, A Kubik Company (U.S.)
Exhibit Fabrication: Maltbie, a Kubik Company (U.S.), Walltopia (Bulgaria), Rocktopia (Bulgaria), Archidea (Bulgaria), A Squared (Bulgaria), OSA-2000 (Bulgaria), Mouse-PS, Ltd. (Bulgaria), Darts Engineering (Bulgaria), Excalibur (Bulgaria), Playground Energy Ltd. (Bulgaria)
Multimedia Software: BonArt Studio (Bulgaria)
Exhibit AV Design and Production: Little Big Films (Bulgaria)
Exhibit AV Systems Integration: Electrosonic (U.K.)
Graphic Design Consultant: Poststudio (Bulgaria)
Lighting Design: Available Light (U.S.), Nikan (Bulgaria)
Electrical Systems & Lighting: Kamo Build Group (Bulgaria)
Digital Strategy and IT Management: Indeavr (Bulgaria)
Finishes, Furniture & Equipment: Feststroy (Bulgaria), Mondo Bulgaria (Bulgaria), Flex Space (Bulgaria), Buldecor Ltd. (Bulgaria)
Acoustical Design: Jaffe Holden (U.S.)
Façade Engineer: Prototyp Ltd. (Bulgaria)
Photos: Roland Halbe, Muzeiko, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership
Other Images: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, BonArts Studio