A visit to the California Academy of Science

An architectural analyses of Renzo Piano's platinum LEED building 5 years later.

North west view of the California Academy of Science from the De Young's Museum watchtower. 

North west view of the California Academy of Science from the De Young's Museum watchtower. 

During my first visit to San Francisco in early Spring 2008, I found myself in the watchtower of the De Young Museum (built by Herzog & De Meuron), doing what all architects love --visiting cool buildings. After a few minutes of taking in the amazing 360 degree views of the city, I noticed the peculiar structure directly across (ref photo above).  Oddly enough, the roof reminded me of the land of Teletubbies. I'm sure this was unintentional, but let’s be frank -- I wasn’t the only one at the time playing building association with the home of Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po and Tinky Winky. Regardless of my strange observation, my inner child thought, ”roof, me, play, now!” Unfortunately, the building was still under construction and I left San Francisco thinking I’d never know what was underneath Teletubbie land.

Fast forward 5 years. Due to the forces that be, I became an SF dweller and had no excuse but to finally go visit one of the Largest LEED Platinum projects of our time -- the quirky building with a green roof that looks like...well, you know.

Armed with my SLR in one hand, my archi-nerd glasses in the other (the imaginary version of Google glasses for architects) and having not read Architecture Records’ Jan. 2009 issue on the building (this was an obvious Google search), I approached the building like a virgin - carrying only my enthusiasm to explore, criticize and praise.

Before entering the building, I sat for a few minutes in the adjacent park, nestled in-between the De Young Museum and the Academy of Science. I noticed that guests used the center stairs as a gathering place or resting stop while they awaited their mode of transportation.

The following photographs mark my experience – and you're more than welcome to pretend you too have on my archi-nerd glasses. Click on image and it will direct you to the Flickr set.  

The following photographs mark my experience – and you're more than welcome to pretend you too have on my archi-nerd glasses. Click on image and it will direct you to the Flickr set.  

One of my first observations was how the building’s program was stated on its facade. The North end was designed using classical architecture versus the West's precast concrete. This decision subconsciously tells the visitor that one side  deals with History and the other with current technology. In addition, the entrance’s glass facade pulls the visitor in and provides them with their first glimpse of what’s inside. Once I entered the building, I was overwhelmed by the sounds of children and visual information. This sensory overload caused me to run to the info desk, grab a map, and quickly find a place of refuge. I had three choices: go left, go through another glass facade, or go right. I choose to go through the glass facade that took me to a Piazza.

While studying the building floor plan and deciding where to go next, I looked over and noticed a class they were having for kids, observing how the sun (though glaring throughout the piazza) shaded the stage area. So naturally, as all architects do, I looked up. Talk about fancy structure.The entire ceiling of the Science Center is very elaborate, even boasting an inverted glass dome held by a steel truss system. The truss system plays a double role, as it holds shades that appear adjustable. How are those shades controlled and moved? Your guess is as good as mine (I’m sure that archrecord issue covers it).

After my breather, I went ahead and started my walkthrough. I loved the polished concrete floors and the wood decking used to separate certain areas. These features create boundaries and keep visitors on a given path due to the different materials. That's what I call subliminal archi-psychology at its finest.

Another element I took note of (thanks to my previous life as an exhibit designer?) was the flexibility the building gave to changing exhibits. What do I mean by this? Well, for starters, the tilt-up concrete was deliberately pre-cast with small holes that function as anchor points for both the building signage and graphics. Why is this cool in my book? It allows the museum to change exhibits without compromising the building's integrity (drilling holes in walls would be a sad nono). In other words, the building’s aesthetics stay sharp year round. Also, the building trusses have pre-welded loops that allow for hanging points for temporary exhibit structures. This tells me that flexibility was non-negotiable in early programming stages.

However, with the good comes the bad. I found noise pollution in certain areas a great distraction. I know they were conscious of this issue, as they added an extensive amount of acoustical tiles in all main corridors and open areas. On a much brighter note, the building materials of concrete and fake colonnades hint at a statement of weight and mass, even though the glass on all four facades allows the light to penetrate through. This gives it a nice open feel,as do the soft cool textures and light palette.

After walking through Africa and a swamp, watching the penguins, getting lost in the Aquarium,and trying to convince a parrot to come home with me, I wiggled my way to the third floor and found (cue heaven white tunnel sound), the sign for the Living Roof. I was exhausted, but after all, this was numero uno on my must-see list, so I’d saved the best for last. I climbed the stairs (since that's the eco thing to do, right?), and after a minute of picturing the Teletubbies bouncing around, I started reading the graphic panels and tried to imagine the building as a smart, self-sustaining machine. It's fair to say there's a lot going on with the building methods and sustainability practices and to fully capture everything, I’d need several more visits. However, the notable ones -- their living roof and solar technology -- make you wonder why all buildings don’t adhere to these practices. But, that’s a story for another day.

In conclusion, along with the gorgeous views of the park, my journey had come to an end. I learned so much on what Renzo was thinking just by visiting, and I encourage others to do the same -- whether it's to admire the building or to simply come and play for the day.