California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco


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…

My most recent travel article, on the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Advocate. If you missed the print edition, you can read the entire article on their web site at:

Added 12 September 2009: The original text of the article is reproduced below:

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.

A field of native California plants rolls across a plain of undulating hills—hovering high above the ground in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Supported largely by glass walls, the “green roof” is only the most surprising of the many striking features of internationally renowned architect Renzo Piano’s new building for the venerable California Academy of Sciences.

The Academy, which houses research and educational facilities and a vast collection of scientific specimens as well as the Kimball Natural History Museum, the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium and more, was formerly housed in a hodgepodge of 13 buildings built in Golden Gate park over the course of 20th century. The park location was chosen after the Academy, founded in 1853, lost it’s original building and and most of its collections to the 1906 Earthquake and fire.

The new building grew from San Francisco’s second major earthquake, the 1989 Loma Pietra. While the museum remained open until 2003, structural damage from the quake presented the opportunity to reinvent the Academy in a totally new, unified, and revolutionary building.

The Academy selected Pritzker Prize winning Architect Renzo Piano, designer (with Richard Rogers) of the revolutionary Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and numerous other museums, to create a new structure that is not only an artistic landmark but also reflects and reinforces the mission of the Academy.

“The Academy’s mission is to explore, explain, and protect the natural world” according to Executive Director, Gregory C. Farrington, Ph.D. The result is a structure that is not only visually striking but is also the world’s “greenest” museum. The building has earned a Platinum rating for 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 long lines waiting to enter the building since it’s opening at the end of 2008 likely have as much or more to do with the awe-inspiring exhibits inside as the environmentally friendly structure however.

The main floor, an enormous rectangle of glass and limestone, houses the Morrison Planetarium in a giant opaque sphere, and a four story rainforest in a sealed transparent dome, on each side of square glass courtyard. Exhibits on the main floor are a creationist’s nightmare: the evolution of species is thoughtfully and clearly explained in series of very visual exhibits illustrating natural selection and biodiversity. The second main floor display is devoted to the effects of climate change and habitat destruction.

Interestingly, favorite sections of the old buildings have been incorporated into the new museum to delightful effect. The neoclassical African hall, with it’s classic dioramas of taxidermied animals has been preserved—with a twist. The main window now contains the Steinhart Aquarium’s collection of live South African penguins, swimming and waddling in startling contrast to the stuffed creatures. Other parts of the original buildings 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.

The aquarium itself now occupies the entire basement of the new structure—an underground, underwater fantasia of 38,000 living creatures. Twenty-five feet high and holding 212,000 gallons of water, the Philippine Coral Reef is one of the deepest exhibits of live corals in the world; while the 100,000 gallon Northern California Coast tank highlights local sea life. Other exhibits feature a walk beneath a glass bottomed Amazon lake, tanks of delicate jellyfish, a hands-on tide pool, and a swamp housing the aquarium’s famous decades-old Albino Alligator.

And high above, a rooftop viewing platform provides a close up look at the amazing living roof.

Finally, the building also features the Moss Room, a gourmet restaurant open for lunch and dinner, featuring local, organic, and sustainably raised produce, sea food and meat—addressing the one question not answered elsewhere in the museum: how does nature taste?

The museum is located at 55 Music Concourse Drive in Golden Gate Park. It’s a short walk from the 9th Avenue N-Judah streetcar stop. Admission can be guaranteed by purchasing tickets online at least 24 hours in advance. Phone: 415 379-8000.

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