Rising ever so gently from the lush landscape of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the new California Academy of Sciences is an exquisite achievement by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop. The Italian architect and his collaborators have recently been extremely successful in the United States, winning several prestigious commissions, often for museums. Yet whereas such projects as the enlargement of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art or the addition of a pavilion for BCAM, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art appear muted by their well-intentioned contextualism, here in San Francisco the Piano team has responded with poetic clarity to the beauty of the site and again constructed a building that should be a model of its type for future generations of museum builders.
The Academy lies across from, and parallel to, the de Young Memorial Museum by Herzog & de Meuron (The Plan, 012). In 1989, both institutions suffered damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake and both decided to rebuild on their historical sites using world-class architects. If Herzog & de Meuron manipulate a striated plan to allow semi-feral vegetation to extend through the linear heart of the art museum, Piano uses the skinniest of steel columns and remarkably clear glass so that views from the park into the institution, and vice versa, are essentially unimpeded. If Herzog & de Meuron abstract the memory of light filtering through the canopy of mature trees to make a contiguous façade of perforated copper, Piano lifts the park surface up into the air and invites visitors into the new undulating undercroft. Truly a flying carpet.
In plan the Academy is a simple rectangle. Its elevation on all four sides has a thin and relatively low parapet supported by the skinny, pale gray columns behind which are walls of exposed concrete, glass and, in the north quadrant, a retained fragment of the old Beaux Arts edifice. The roof of this delicate colonnade surrounding the entire complex is a diaphanous canopy assembled in part from 60,000 photovoltaic cells that provide approximately 10% of the building’s energy needs.
Viewed across the park, the Academy’s roof is seen to swell upward into a family of bulbous mounds, some dotted with circular skylights. From the de Young viewing tower, the Academy’s roof is revealed as a flowing topography of diverse vegetation within the canopy fringe, with artificial hillocks and a rectangular pool of glass at its centre.
Visitors enter from Golden Gate Park on axis between the surviving Beaux Arts pavilion - which houses the Academy’s African Hall containing updated traditional tableaux and live penguins - and the concrete flank of the Academy’s store, café and restaurant. From the other side, staff members access the building across an elongated bridge to discover a sunken pit - home to an albino alligator, protected by a balustrade of metal seahorses - and a quartet of freestanding columns. This pit and the columns are further remnants of the pre-earthquake institution whereas the color chosen for the bridge and for high-level light fittings, International Orange, is a wry homage to another San Francisco landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. Otherwise the interior design eschews quotation and color - it gives priority to structure and exhibits.
Accessed via internal glazed screens, the void at the core or crossroads of the Academy allows for views in all four axial directions. Piano calls it The Piazza; and with its delicate metal roof trusses and transparent ceiling, this lucid room both has the airiness of an external space and reveals the innards of the institution to intense effect. In fact a favorite word of the Academy’s curators is ‘immersive’. Here at the center of the project, visitors are beguiled by the great swooping undercroft of the primary roof structure; by glimpses down to dazzling aquaria; and the presence, to either side, of a singular bulbous form pushing upward to give the roof its characteristic form. These symmetrically disposed domes are a canted, opaque hemisphere (the Morrison Planetarium) and an igloo of crystalline glass (Rainforests of the World).
As visitors promenade about this interior parterre, they discover freestanding installations coordinated by Cinnabar, exhibition specialists from Los Angeles, and explaining, for instance, lessons in evolution to be learned from Madagascar and the Galapagos Islands. The Academy’s basement is a wonderful aqueous zone dedicated to Filipino coral reefs, to the Northern California coast and, at the base of Rainforests of the World, with natural light filtering down from the roof high above, to the Amazonian Flooded Rainforest. This is the lowest of four levels contained within the giant igloo, accessible via a kind of decompression chamber (to stop butterflies from escaping) and rising as a glazed hemisphere almost to the underside of the Academy’s roof - this is the artificial hillock perforated with many porthole windows seen from outside.
Understandably the Academy is keen to stress its own environmental responsibility and is aiming for a platinum rating from America’s LEED system. If successful, the Academy will be world’s largest LEED platinum public building (LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). In collaboration with Arup, the renowned engineers and sustainability consultants, Piano’s building uses daylight and natural ventilation to greatly reduce energy consumption. Much of the demolition material from the earthquake-damaged Academy was reused elsewhere while the steel in the new building is itself recycled. There are state-of-the-art photosensors to dim lights, motorized window components, and integrated brown water techniques. The salt water needed for the aquaria is piped directly from the ocean using an existing network.
To enter the Planetarium (in which an extraordinary movie provides a virtual journey 60 million light years from Earth), visitors cross above the aquaria and gain glimpses of multicolored fish and, on occasion, of human divers servicing the tanks. Piano’s building thrives on such adjacent functions being exposed to view - each element adds to the didactic excitement. His most dramatic move, the roof, is accessed via elevator onto a compact, external viewing terrace, as in a nature preserve. Inspired, he notes, by the local topography, Piano has created a 2½-acre artificial terrain planted with indigenous plants secured in trays of biodegradable coconut husk. Like much historic architecture, the roof makes formal allusions to nature. Bringing life back to the city, achieving 98% rain absorption, Piano’s roofscape is also now in synergy with the greater organic world.