Last week I watched a team of artisans paint fake moss on a fake Cyprus tree, which soaks in a fake swamp intended for very real alligators (including an albino one). I was on a building tour of the California Academy of Science in San Francisco, home of the Steinhart Aquarium. In addition to a research center, offices, exhibits, dioramas, and fish tanks, the building contains a spherical planetarium, the form mirrored by a four-story rainforest biosphere. Let’s not forget the three different interactive aquariums, holding up to 100,000 gallons of water each. On top, a green roof planted with native species molds itself over the whole kit and caboodle.
Renzo Piano is given due credit as architect, but the building is so complex even that term seems to be overreaching. So then, who to laud? Arup did a bang up job with the sustainability, MEP, and structural features. Stantec Architecture (formerly Chong Partners Architecture) is the architect of record. Rana Creek Living Architecture consulted on the living roof. And there are exhibition designers Thinc and Cinnabar, aquarium experts PBS&J, and the dozens of people who hand-painted the tide pools…or the rollercoaster designer who was called in to craft the helix ramp in the rainforest.
Consider the photo above: I took this shot from within a 9-inch-thick acrylic tunnel, looking through a 100,000-gallon tank (the flooded Amazon rainforest will eventually contain arapaima, giant catfish, vegetarian piranhas, and a giant anaconda) and into the curve of the glass biosphere. That dappled light is from the skylights punched in the living roof.
An interlocking network of designers, contractors, engineers, and artisans isn’t really unique (well, until you start adding scientists, biologists, and 38,000 animals), but maybe, just maybe, it chips away at the starchitect mantle.