The California Academy of Sciences perches in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Italian architect Renzo Piano’s workhorse ethereality takes form in striated white columns that perk up the long glass expanses of building, and in the 2.5-acre living roof, seeded with native California plants. The Academy, which was founded in 1853, was housed in several buildings that were destroyed by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. The new structure opened in 2008, after nine years of planning and construction.
The building, a combination adaptive reuse and new construction, is not only rare in its scope—it contains a planetarium, an aquarium, and a strong natural history collection as well as the associated offices and laboratories—but also in its mix of modernism and naturalism. It was one of the first ten buildings in San Francisco to be built with LEED Platinum certification in mind, and materials taken from the original buildings were recycled or re-used (part of the old structures also now pave roadways in nearby Richmond). Much of the new construction was oriented towards sustainability, including the use of reclaimed wood, thoughtful water management, and a combination of natural and automated climate control protocols: the roof acts as a natural rainwater absorber, while the windows are auto-controlled to open and close depending on heat levels in the building.
The original Academy was housed in a group of eleven buildings oriented around a central courtyard, an orientation that has been maintained even as all the elements of the institution were drawn together under one roof. Parts of the original museum, including the aquarium entrance and the African Hall, are preserved in the new structure, though this nod to history is coupled with an embrace of contemporary touches, like a red bridge walkway whose color and suspension mimic the nearby Golden Gate Bridge.
A central courtyard, which operates as the entrance point, feeds into the three main exhibits arrayed around it: the planetarium, the aquarium, and the indoor rainforest. The roof itself expresses the shape of these three major elements, undulating as if it were draped over the rounded roofs of the domed exhibits. The exterior of the building, surrounded by covered walkways detailed with thin columns and lined by walls of glass, is reminiscent of some of Piano’s other projects, such as the Menil Collection in Houston or the Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The indoor rainforest, a central element to the museum, is accessed by standing in line next to an indoor creek livened up by a model of a reed raft. A ramp leads visitors upward from the base of the glass-domed structure on a smooth procession through the horizontally striated microhabitats of the rainforest. This circular procession makes both programmatic sense and is a reference to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, which first introduced the ramp-as-artistic experience.
The domed structure of the rainforest, which dominates the northeast wing, is mirrored along the lateral axis of the building in the form of the Morrison Planetarium on the opposite side of the courtyard. Between the two, flanking the side of the courtyard across from the entrance, is the Steinhart Aquarium, announced by a replica of the original neoclassical aquarium entrance. The exhibits, however, are underground, with their design a cavernous foil to the airy, open, glass-walled museum above.
In this juxtaposition, nature and its strength and fragility find architectural expression. Progression through each exhibit ends in a return to the central courtyard, with the visitor standing under a glass canopy that Piano himself described as “a reticular structure reminiscent of a spider’s web,” recalling the delicate ephemerality of one of nature’s strongest materials. An elevator ride takes the visitor up to the living roof, which revels in this balance. Landscaped with local seasonal vegetation, the character of the roof space changes with the seasons, and as individual plants bloom and fade, the garden’s vibrancy remains a striking constant year round.
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Ouroussoff, Nicolai. “A Building That Blooms and Grows, Balancing Nature and Civilization.” New York Times, September 2008.
Steen, Karen E. “Green Architecture’s Grand Experiment - Part 1: The Building.” Metropolis, September 2008.