Nature and Nurture

San Francisco's newest museum building thrusts one of its oldest institutions into the 21st century, with the latest in sustainable architecture and green technology.




Yet another new home became necessary after structural damage from the Bay Area's 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake eventually closed the old museum in 2003, presenting an opportunity to reinvent the CAS in a totally new, unified, and visionary structure. The academy selected Pritzker Prize-winning architect Piano, designer of the revolutionary Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (with Richard Rogers) as well as numerous other museums, to create a structure that is not only an artistic landmark but also reflects and reinforces the mission of the CAS to "explore, explain, and protect the natural world," according to executive director Gregory C. Farrington. The result is not just visually striking -- it is also the world's greenest museum. The academy has earned a "platinum" rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), making it the largest sustainable public building in the world, incorporating, among other features, solar energy panels and a passive cooling system.

"This museum has always worked on three levels -- displaying the collection, educating the public, researching the science. The spirit of this new building is to announce and enforce this complexity of function," Piano explains.

The main floor, an enormous rectangle of glass and limestone, houses the Morrison Planetarium in a giant opaque sphere on one side, with a four-story rain forest in a sealed transparent dome on the other. Several sections of the original buildings have been incorporated into the redesigned museum, creating a beautiful contrast between old and new. The neoclassical African Hall, with its taxidermy dioramas, has been preserved. The main window now contains the Steinhart Aquarium's live South African penguins, swimming and waddling in startling contrast to the stuffed creatures. Other parts of the original structure have been preserved to great effect as well, including the 1934 entry colonnade, the Foucault pendulum, and the playful brass seahorse railings of the original aquarium building.

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