The wow factor
Christine McCabe visits San Francisco’s spectacular new Renzo Piano-designed California Academy of Sciences
OR those whose notion of a museum is pinned somewhere between the butterflies and stuffed birds of a dusty 19th-century cabinet of curiosities, the recently opened California Academy of Sciences will come as a breath of fresh air. Almost floating above San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Renzo Piano-designed museum, opened at the end of September, is an all-glass cathedral to the sciences, topped with a living roof of Californian wildflowers. It is so transparent and light-filled you can see right through from the front to the back and the park beyond.
Said to be the greenest museum in the world and the first to house an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and research and education facility under one roof, the California Academy of Sciences has been a decade in the planning, marshalling one of the largest cultural fundraising efforts in San Francisco’s history. (Founded in 1853, the academy previously sprawled across 12 buildings, several of them damaged by the 1989 earthquake.)
The new-look academy is an arresting building, putting me in mind of an enormous, sleek greenhouse, perfectly suited to its parkland setting directly opposite the equally striking de Young Museum, which opened in 2005.
The visionary Piano has turned the notion of a natural history museum on its head, eschewing those 19thcentury concepts of darkened rooms stuffed with dead animals. A museum, he says, can be like a kingdom of darkness, and you are trapped inside’’.
Not so at the academy, where an especially clear glass, manufactured in Germany, helps draw the surrounding greenery indoors. Which is where we are heading to road-test this new attraction, because while I could go on about Piano’s innovative design until the dinosaurs come home, the true test of this academy will lie in its exhibits. And I have with me the harshest of all cultural critics, my 12 and 13-year-old sons.
We are off to a flying start the moment we step inside the glass edifice, skipping through the busy piazza to the swamp where an otherworldly albino alligator dozes with a coterie of more regularly pigmented chums. (I’ve since read some San Franciscans posit he’s a fake; in years they’ve not seen him bat an eyelid.)
Then it’s off to the northern California coast along a walkway above a saltwater tank (we can smell the briny tang) where an enormous surge machine sends waves rolling and tossing from a deep kelp forest to shore.
The 380,000-litre tank houses leopard sharks, sea urchins, rock fish and other denizens of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (just north of San Francisco), while sundry smaller tanks contain, among other things, a giant Pacific octopus (curled up like a cat) and moray eels attended to by a bevy of spider-like shrimp spring cleaning as assiduously as the city’s obsessive-compulsive television detective Adrian Monk.
The even larger tank at the Philippine Coral Reef contains about 4000 fish; on the surface a wide boardwalk passes through a mangrove lagoon, with sharks and rays cruising just below our wriggling toes. (On the academy’s lower level more than 100 separate aquariums house fish, amphibians, reptiles and insects and once an hour the lights are lowered, transforming the room into a 360-degree projection theatre.)
The impressive four-storey rainforest exhibit is one of the museum’s main drawcards and queues are generally long. Housed in a soaring, steamy glass dome, filled with towering mahogany and palm trees, the exhibit features the fish, birds, insects and reptiles of the Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and Amazon rainforests.
Once inside this natty biosphere, we climb three floors via a winding ramp with colourful birds and butterflies fluttering around our heads and frogs decorating the trees. Along the way, smaller tanks allow closer viewing of a range of curious creatures, from the flying frogs of Borneo and cobalt-blue tarantulas to the inside workings of a leaf-cutter ants’ nest.
The rainbow-hued chameleons are a star turn (‘‘Sick,’’ declares son No 2) and if further evidence were needed of the academy’s pulling power for tweens and teens, it’s the sight of my sons, mobile phones drawn, snapping pictures of creatures left, right and centre.
Once on level three, we board a glass elevator (where eagle-eyed attendants are stationed to apprehend escaping butterflies) to carry us down to the flooded floor of an Amazonian forest. Here we stand below the river to gaze up at slow-moving river fish while smaller aquariums contain a collection of Boy’s Own creepy crawlies: anacondas, piranhas and electric eels.
Being a keen gardener, I next shoo the family up on to the roof. While the plantings are yet to fully establish, the effect is already quite wonderful, with several rounded hills, echoing San Francisco’s topography, rolling over the academy’s key exhibits. As well as providing green insulation, the 1ha roof garden will constitute a new high-rise habitat for birds and insects.
The very 19th-century African Hall (the original opened in 1934 and has long been a favourite attraction for the museum’s San Franciscan regulars) has been recreated largely in its original form, with old-fashioned dioramas updated with plasma touch screens and
By Jupiter: The academy features the world’s largest, most advanced and astounding all-digital planetarium
Arresting vision: The all-glass cathedral to science looks like an enormous sleek greenhouse augmented by a handful of live animal exhibits, including a colony of African penguins.
The highlight of my sons’ visit, however, is the thoroughly 21st-century, whizzbang planetarium. And if we thought the queues were long for the rainforest, we are in for a rude shock. More an enormous, domeshaped IMAX cinema, this is the world’s largest and most technically advanced, all-digital planetarium, featuring the latest data from NASA. The visual effects are astounding.
A note to fellow poor sailors: you might feel a tad queasy as you virtually beam up through the academy’s superstructure to hover above the living roof before flying over San Francisco and the Californian coast, up, up above Earth, into space, beyond the moon, through our solar system and to the furthest reaches of the universe. The sensation of flying is sometimes overwhelming but nonetheless the question is: where can we buy a home entertainment system like this?
After six hours, we feel we have barely scratched the academy’s floral surface, spending a half hour mesmerised by a giant pendulum and further time road-testing those crucial teen and tween facilities of restaurant and shop. Good news, however, on both fronts. The ownerchef of San Francisco’s acclaimed Slanted Door, Charles Phan, has had a hand in the cafe, where walls of live fish and a handsome terrace are augmented by busy food stations serving Vietnamese, Mexican and other cui-
The California Academy of Sciences is at 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, and is open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am to 5pm, and Sunday, 11am to 5pm (closed Christmas and Thanksgiving). Admission (which includes access to the planetarium and rainforest): adults $US24.95 ($37); seniors and children 12-17 $US19.95; children 7-11 $US14.95. Children under six are free. A $US3 discount a person applies if you take public transport (so don’t lose your Muni ticket). The academy is free to the public on the third Wednesday of every month. More: www.calacademy.org.