Exploratorium Makes Big Splash Along SF Waterfront

April 18, 2013

San Francisco—“You’ve made the visible, invisible and the invisible, visible,” observed Dennis Bartels, executive director of The Exploratorium, to architect Marc L’Italien, FAIA.  “And that’s more difficult to achieve than simply designing a statement building.”

The Exploratorium’s move to Pier 15 – a building the length of one New York city block – triples the museum’s size, inside and outside, enabling more exhibits, classrooms, R&D and fabrication areas as well as increased professional development and public programs and amenities, including a restaurant, a café, a museum store and an event space called “The Forum”.  The neighboring Pier 17 is intended for future growth, including publicly-accessible walkways around the piers and a national center for teacher development.

But at the new home of the world’s leading institution for informal learning – located along the Embarcadero, San Francisco’s historic waterfront, midway between Ferry Plaza and Fisherman’s Wharf – the boundaries blur. 

“It’s a fusion of site, architecture and exhibits,” notes Mr. L’Italien, EHDD design principal on the project.  “The Exploratorium’s vision – and their culture – challenged our entire project team to embrace the cross-pollination and co-authorship of ideas, among ourselves, our consultants and the museum’s exhibit designers, where traditionally, the various creative disciplines’ work is more delineated and compartmentalized.”  Landscape architect Gary Strang agrees, “Our public open space design is fundamentally intertwined with the architecture, urban infrastructure and natural systems of San Francisco.  In this special project, landscape and architecture are in an equal dialogue.” 

The results look nothing short of intentional.  For example, mounted along the code-required hand rails along the campus’ south side, “The Bay Waters” explores the condition of San Francisco Bay.  While on the east side, a plankton wall makes an architectural statement, while inviting inquiry.  Around the corner, Doug Hollis’ wind-activated sound structure “Aeolian Harp” responds to the wind dynamics at the narrowest point between Piers 15 and 17.  Next to it sits the two-storey, glass-clad Fisher Bay Observatory – the only new structure on the campus – which EHDD designed as larger than life aperture through which visitors can view the city on one side, the San Francisco Bay on the other and the sky and stars overhead.

EHDD worked with Page & Turnbull, a firm known for its expertise in historic preservation, to refurbish Pier 15, a historic shed. As Page & Turnbull principal Carolyn Kiernat explains, “We helped preserve the past as a shell so that inside the future can be created.” In The Exploratorium’s case, the future is continuously and constantly re-imagined.

Inside Pier 15, EHDD’s Marc L’Italien – whose project credits include the historic renovation of The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois and new The David and Lucile Packard Foundation headquarters in Los Altos, California, among others - deliberately designed interior areas to allow for maximum flexibility with materials for interior walls specified for repeated, low-maintenance use.  He says, “Our design is dynamic so it can grow with the museum’s needs.”

True to its tinkering culture, Pier 15 itself is an experiment over the next year on scaling sustainable design to an unprecedented level as The Exploratorium aims to be the largest museum of its kind in the US, maybe the world to achieve net zero energy (NZE).  It boasts the largest building-mounted PV (photovoltaic) array in San Francisco and uses bay water to heat and cool the building.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same.  As Marc L’Italien puts it, “It’s still The Exploratorium – quirky, unexpected, always in motion – but now there’s even more of it for the world to enjoy and explore.”

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