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Under one green roof

Art and nature coexist at the California Academy of Sciences.

September 27, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Renzo Piano's original concept for the new California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park was elegantly simple: Slice out a huge, rectangular section of the park landscape, lift it 36 feet into the air and slide a new piece of architecture underneath. The floor of the park would become a green roof atop the facility -- a feature Piano dubbed "the flying carpet."

The completed academy, which opens to the public today, is neither perfectly elegant nor perfectly simple. The building's marriage of well-behaved classical proportion and shape-shifting organic form is sometimes strained. Its precise, transparent facade sits rather uncomfortably atop a long fragment of the academy's old neoclassical building, the rest of which was demolished four years ago after suffering damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Inside, blindingly white re-creations of some of the old facility's most beloved architectural spaces -- including the arched, coffered ceiling above the African dioramas and the colonnaded entrance to the aquarium -- offer a sugary counterpoint to Piano's glass walls.

But these seeming contradictions wind up producing an unusually rich, thoughtful and evocative building. It is precisely Piano's attempt to bring together the very different priorities of cutting-edge and green design -- to bring together art and nature, to put it another way -- that makes the $488-million, 410,000-square-foot academy such a breakthrough in the short history of sustainable architecture in this country. Never before has a public building in the U.S. so persuasively made the case for reconciling the architecture profession's high-design wing with its ecological true believers.

In the end, Piano proves self-assured enough to let the academy, which squeezes a natural history museum, an aquarium and a planetarium into a single facility, look a little ungainly in places. (There are many talented architects who would have refused to include the replica of the aquarium entrance, for instance, simply on aesthetic grounds.) The entire structure, in fact, operates as a sizable and moving essay on the difficulty, and the necessity, of compromise. Science, meet intuition. Fixed, meet flux.

Seen from the entrance, where it looks out over Herzog & de Meuron's 2005 De Young Museum, the academy resembles a pavilion in the Mies van der Rohe mold: tall and imposingly wide, with perfect posture. But once you walk inside you see that a number of less rectilinear shapes -- in particular, a pair of huge domes, one holding a new version of the Morrison Planetarium, the other a stunning rain forest with live trees, birds and butterflies -- are pushing to break free of or through the hangar-like Miesian box. Below ground awaits another jaw-dropping space: the reconfigured Steinhart Aquarium, with snaking, almost liquid-looking wall panels by the New York firm Thinc Design. The fish tanks are filled with saltwater piped in from the Pacific.

Once you make your way, via elevator or staircase, to the green roof, which covers 2 1/2 acres and wraps around a large viewing platform, you see not only the tops of the two main domes but other bulbous architectural forms pushing their way up against the structure. Rather than cage the natural world, the box is deformed and perhaps liberated by it. Looked at another way, the curving forms are like bubbles in some primordial muck.

Academy officials and Arup, the engineering firm that worked with Piano and a local firm, Stantec, to realize the building, have called the roof one of the museum's primary exhibits. Containing nine species of native plants, it will filter storm runoff and keep the building cool in summer and warm in winter. It is also ringed by photovoltaic panels that will produce somewhere between 5% and 10% of the building's energy needs. Although that's not a particularly impressive number, most green roofs have no energy-generating power.

Different sections of the roof's landscape will bloom throughout the year, which means that the building itself will have a seasonal character, its personality changing dramatically from month to month. How's that for a concept that strict Modernists -- or strict classicists, for that matter -- would find unsettling?

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