The wow fac­tor

Chris­tine McCabe vis­its San Fran­cisco’s spec­tac­u­lar new Renzo Pi­ano-de­signed Cal­i­for­nia Academy of Sciences

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.cala­

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