… 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 is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.