How do you build a natural history museum in a park? If you are Renzo Piano, you decide to lift up a piece of the park and slide the museum in under, as at the recently opened new home of the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco.
Piano, the renowned Italian exponent of technologically sophisticated architecture, has given the museum a 2.5-acre “green roof”. In a lyrical touch, its “hillocks” rhyme with the backdrop of hills in this famously up-and-down city, giving form to the underlying agenda of using technology to build sustainably. At the same time, the building also struggles with an important question about how architecture frames the meaning of nature.
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Founded in 1853, the academy claims to be the oldest natural history institution in the West. It is also the only one in the world with an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and a “world-class research and education programme” under one roof.
After an earthquake in 1989 damaged its historic building, the academy raised funds for a new building to replace the old, on the same site in Golden Gate Park. Piano, a winner of the Pritzker Prize (the equivalent of the Nobel in architecture), was entrusted the design of the 410,000 sq. ft building (with an exhibition area of about 100,000 sq. ft) in 2000. Construction began in September 2005 and the museum was opened to the public late in September 2008.
Visually, the most striking exhibit must be the four-storeyed glass dome which showcases “Rainforests of the World”. You walk up a ramp that spirals around and through a live tableau of trees, birds, and butterflies. An elevator awaits you at the top. Here, you are politely requested to dust off any butterflies that may have come along for the ride, since the elevator is taking you down to the basement aquarium.
The slow descent below the waterline is memorable because of the glass wall of the elevator. As you are lowered into the Amazonian flooded forest, roles are reversed. The fish in the water “out there” now watch the people in the glass box coming to a halt.
The experience of walking underwater, looking up at the aquascape through a glass tunnel, is admittedly special. But the most pleasant surprise is the opportunity to actually touch many of the aquatic animals at the Discovery Tidepool.
This agenda of extending entertainment towards education is most clear in the Naturalist Centre (Level 3). You almost walk straight into it as you emerge from a memorable flight across the universe in the Morrison Planetarium. The staff at the Naturalist Centre are keen to help you find information on any scientific matter—never mind if it is 5 minutes to closing time. If they don’t know the answer, there are always the scientists behind the scenes, whom they will ask on your behalf!
Open museum of the green
The building itself takes the technical goal of sustainability seriously. It claims to be the greenest museum in the world. It certainly has the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, see Know below) rating there is: platinum. It used recycled steel in construction, and recycled denim insulation in walls. It is also naturally ventilated through automated glass hatches in the green roof. This roof itself redirects storm water run-off into underground aquifers.
The building sits lightly on the ground. Inside, the sumptuously day-lit space appears to run on into the park on every side, thanks to its exceptionally clear (and expensive) German glass envelope. Where most natural history museums are closed boxes with lights manipulating your attention, here, a comfortable daylight is everywhere, leaving you relaxed.
Part of the comfort of day-lighting owes to the glass roof along the outer periphery of the building that allows the tall external glazing to let in the light without the heat. Apart from reducing electricity consumption for artificial lighting, it helps minimize heat gain. Along its periphery, this glass roof also carries 60,000 photovoltaic cells designed to provide 10% of the museum’s power requirements.
No wonder they call it the “solar canopy”. Enveloping the otherwise hard glass box of the museum with a graceful, “soft” cushion of space, it exemplifies Piano’s pursuit of simple, elegant solutions that are technologically sophisticated.
Externally, the museum has a quiet, self-effacing presence that directs our attention to the recreated nature on its roof, as well as to a marker of its history (a wall from the old demolished building).
Inside, by contrast, the steel members, exposed concrete panels, the inevitable clutter of lights, railings, and steel framing for the glass roof and walls, all insert a layer of technology between us and the exhibit. The straight lines, shiny surfaces and perfect geometries bear the mark of the machine. When we look up at the suspended blue whale skeleton, it is the acoustic panels in the curving steel and concrete ceiling overhead that we notice first. The glass dome around the rainforest is a stronger presence than the verdure itself.
Therein lies the paradox. The very strategy of keeping technology to its simplest emphasizes its presence beyond what was perhaps intended. Progressive in so many ways, this impressive building does, however, end up calling attention more to the work of man than to the life of nature.
A “green roof” may be one covered with vegetation growing in soil laid over a waterproof membrane. In eco-architectural terms, it can also indicate that the structure uses “green” technology, such as solar panels or photovoltaic cells. The “living roof” of the California Academy of Sciences is “green” in both respects. Additionally, all the plants used are native to the northern California coast. At least 30 species were tried out on the roof of the old building before finally selecting nine. Now, 1.7 million plants sit in 50,000 biodegradable coconut husk trays— sustainable use of waste products from the Philippines. Staff Writer
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programme was launched by the US Green Building Council in 1998. It awards points and grants certification for sustainable design and construction. Points are awarded in five key areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.
These measures can reduce operational as well as maintenance costs, offsetting building costs and resulting in significantly lower carbon emissions compared to conventional architectural practices. Four levels of LEED certificates are awarded: certified, silver, gold and platinum. In a certified building, at least 50% of the various guidelines must be achieved; platinum represents 80% or more of the total number of points possible. Staff Writer
The roof of the new California Academy of Sciences building isn’t merely “green”, it is also cool—and not just architecturally. The skylights let in natural light—key to the rainforest and aquarium displays—and also provide ventilation. They pop open automatically on warm days to let hot air out of the building. Below, automated louvres open and close through the day, letting cool air into the lower floors. The steep slopes of the roof also funnel cool air into the open-air plaza. All this means less dependence on huge fans or chemical coolants. Staff Writer
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