Thursday, November 6, 2008

Popular Science

The Natural History Museum in London is one of my favorite places in the whole city and on my must-see list for any tourist visiting London. Working there, however briefly, was truly an amazing experience. The old, dusty, antiquated feeling to the place to me represented its greatness not its shortcomings, whereas the modern wings felt cheap and soulless in comparison. While I would never argue that natural history is a thing of the past, I would say that it needs a bit of dusting off and rebranding to be interesting and relevant to the world today.

I have been waiting for years for the California Academy of Science in San Francisco, one of the 10 largest natural history museums in the world, to reopen in its new building in Golden Gate Park. I loved the old museum, but the last time I was there it felt kind of shabby and out of date, so I was happy to hear of their plans to rebuild and start afresh. I also visited their temporary home while they rebuilt in the original location in the park, but this felt, perhaps unsurprisingly, small and impermanent.

The new Cal Academy building, which just opened at the end of September, was designed by Renzo Piano, known for his work (with Richard Rogers) on the unusual and controversial Pompidou Center in Paris, the Whitney Museum and the new New York Times building in Manhattan, and other large-scale projects. Beyond the elegant design of the new building, it is also the greenest museum in the world and the largest building yet to receive the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. What amazed me was that you could easily walk around the musuem and never notice most of the innovative energy-saving measures used in the design. The museum uses insulation made from recycled blue jeans, which is safer and more energy efficient than fiberglass. The canopy that covers the entrance and surrounds the building on all sides is not merely decorative, in fact the patterns that I mistook for simple artistic designs contain thousands of photovoltaic cells that provide around 10% of the museum's power needs, proving, as I had always suspected, that solar panels don't need to be clunky and ugly.

The photovotaic canopy at the Cal Academy

The most noticeable green aspect of the building is the living roof, a bizarre landscape of undulating hills, skylights, and solar panels. This roof provides insulation for the building and takes advantage of the rainwater which would otherwise be wasted. As far as what will happen during the dry Mediterranean summers in California, I'm hoping it won't dry to a crisp, but we'll find out next year (maybe they're storing extra rain water for this time, I'm not sure).

The living roof at the Cal Academy

I certainly like the roof, despite it's odd mumpy appearance, and I spent at least a small amount of time being incredibly nerdy and identifying the plants they were using on the roof and showing off my Latin prowess to my friends. The glazed-over distant look they always get when I do this is clearly a sign of how impressed they are. While I enjoyed the roof and the views over Golden Gate Park and the De Young Museum (even on the grey morning we were there), I can imagine some people making their way up to the roof and saying "Hmm, there's a weird looking roof covered with weeds, awesome" and going right back down to the penguins and sharks without another thought. If only they had me there to tell them about the origin of the name Achillea millefolium, I'm certain they would have a much better time.

As a fish lover, the new Cal Academy's aquarium was definitely a highlight. I do miss the old Steinhart Aquarium, especially the circular fish room where you stood in the middle of a huge ring-shaped tank. Hundreds of fish would all be swimming in one direction and one oddball would be going the opposite way; I liked that guy. The new aquarium is much snazzier in every respect and the new tanks look amazing so far. I particularly loved seeing some of the more unusual animals like the chambered nautiluses and the leafy sea dragons.

Spooky Nautilus

Kelp and fishies

The indoor rainforest, a multi-story glass sphere that occupies the greater portion of one wing of the building, is perhaps the most talked about feature of the new museum and certainly the busiest attraction.

People inside the indoor rainforest sphere

The nifty futuristic roof of the rainforest sphere

There are some impressive things in the rainforest dome, such as lots of live butterflies flying around and some nice live plants...

...and then there are some disappointing aspects like the fake ferns (Pteris plastica)

View down to through the water to the aquarium tunnel

As far as when to visit, might I suggest not going on a weekend only a few weeks after the grand opening on kind of a chilly day where everyone was trying to think of something to do indoors. It was packed. On the plus side, it's great to see people voluntarily lining up for anything even remotely science related, and it was impressive to see that the building and staff could handle the massive crowds. On the minus side, I think I stepped on about a dozen children (sorry kids), got my ankle repeatedly smashed into by strollers, the slow crowded shuffle through the hot humid rainforest got intensely claustrophobic, and with thousands of babies inside of a large greenhouse the aroma got increasingly diapery throughout the day.

A small portion of the long lines waiting to get into the museum

An unruly herd of wild strollers (Currus infantulus)

Overall, I was very impressed by the new Cal Academy, and I can't wait to return once the excitement has died down a bit so I can take longer and more fully explore the museum's exhibits (and actually be able to get into the planetarium). Most importantly, I think the museum succeeded in the most fundamental challenge: through clever architecture and carefully planned exhibits, they have managed to truly bring natural history into today's world, so much so that people are willing to stand in long lines and pay a rather high price to get in to see what they have to say. And I'll bet you some of these people slept through science in high school.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I can't wait to check it out. I have so many memories of the old place...