Calif. Academy of Sciences Reopens!

As journalists recount its fascinating history

As a native of northern California, I can safely say that it’s easy to envy anybody living in or visiting the Bay Area this weekend. Tomorrow, the revamped California Academy of Sciences reopens in its historic Golden Gate Park home after a four-year hiatus. As a kid, I remember seeing a two-headed snake in the old museum, forever convincing me that biology is awesome (and, at the time, that monsters were real).

It was pleasing, then, to see the grand reopening get some attention in the national press. The coverage, not surprisingly, has focused on the architectural achievement of Renzo Piano, the high-profile Italian architect responsible for the $488 million structure, which is expected to earn a platinum rating—the highest designation—from the U.S. Green Building Council. Strangely, The New York Times’s review, published Tuesday, doesn’t mention that fact, despite beig one of the more well-written (albeit ethereal) critiques of the new building:

The idea is to create a balance between public and private, inside and out, the Cartesian order of the mind and the unruly world of nature.

A glass lobby allows you to gaze straight through the building to the park on the other side. Other views open into exhibition spaces with their own microclimates. The entire building serves as a sort of specimen case, a framework for pondering the natural world while straining to disturb it as little as possible.

The academy’s hometown San Francisco Chronicle published an architectural review of its own. Its best contribution to the overall coverage, however, was an excellent story about the turbulent planning process that began back in 1997. The piece leads with the wonderfully ironic observation, “It started with a bad idea.”

That inauspicious beginning is important to note when considering the great expectations that always accompany such projects, and it’s worth digging into some the academy-related articles that appeared earlier this year. Indeed, the Chronicle published a fascinating piece last November that described the motivations behind the ambitious remodel:

It’s called the Bilbao Effect, in reference to the free-form Frank Gehry-designed art museum that opened in Bilbao, Spain, a decade ago and transformed an unremarkable river port town into a major tourist destination. In the first three years of its existence, according to the Financial Times, Gehry’s titanium-clad magnet pulled in an estimated $500 million in new business and $100 million in taxes for Bilbao.

All around the world, cities were seized by major museum lust. They craved spectacular structures, preferably designed by big-name architects, that would repeat the 1997 Bilbao branding miracle of quality, prestige and revenue potential…

[Yet] Pleasing and gratifying as all this progress may be, it does come with certain disorienting costs and effects. To a greater degree than we may recognize at first, and for longer than we expect, new museums are an awful lot about themselves and less about what’s inside. Call it the Bilbao Side Effect. By virtue of their own notoriety and splashy drawing power, these high-profile houses have a way of obscuring their presumptive prime function: of displaying art in the most felicitous and revealing ways possible. People come to see the building, in other words, and regard the contents as a secondary concern.

It appears, however, that Academy of Sciences is so far passing muster, even among the most skeptical critics. Earlier this month, Newsweek published an essay by Cathleen McGuigan that was likeable for its cynical, outside-the-fold attitude about the latest building fad:

I hate green architecture. I can’t stand the hype, the marketing claims, the smug lists of green features that supposedly transform a garden-variety new building into a structure fit for Eden… Achieving real sustainability is much more complicated than the publicity suggests. And that media roar is only getting louder. The urge to build green is exploding: more than 16,000 projects are now registered with the U.S. Green Building Council as intending to go for a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)—or sustainable—certification, up from just 573 in 2000.

… So when I come upon a beautiful sustainable building that doesn’t scream green, it cheers me up. The California Academy of Sciences, opening later this month in San Francisco, is a perfect example. It replaces the old science museum that was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Its design is sensitive to its place and history: the new building doesn’t gobble up more space on its spectacular site in Golden Gate Park, and its architect, Renzo Piano, was careful to go no higher—36 feet—than the original structure. The most obvious ecofeature of his elegantly simple glass-sided pavilion is the green roof: a rolling 2.5-acre terrain, inspired in part by the surrounding hills, it cleverly disguises, under its two biggest bumps, the domes of the planetarium and of the rainforest exhibit underneath.

To be sure, it seems that the new academy has not forsaken science in the pursuit of art. Last October, the Chronicle ran an article that focused on the planned exhibits rather than the architecture, concluding, “Take a deep breath, science buffs - and get ready to be blown away.” And, last March, The New York Times had a piece that described some the research-oriented lessons that have already been learned. Apparently, the penguin exhibit at the last museum was not terribly exciting because the amphibious creatures tended to “huddle on dry land” rather than engage in acrobatic swimming exercises that enthrall visitors. But:

Since 2004, when the academy moved to temporary quarters, scientists have used underwater jets to simulate currents in the penguin tank. Penguins like to swim in moving water, so the jets “completely changed their behavior,” said Pam Schaller, a senior aquatic biologist at the academy. The jets were such a success that they are being included in the penguin tank at the new museum.

All of this makes me very happy that the National Association of Science Writers’ annual meeting is taking place at Stanford this year, which will afford me some time to go see the new academy for myself. I know the albino alligator is still there; I wonder about the two-headed snake?

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.