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Water Planet: San Francisco

PROJECT DETAILS



The Steinhart Aquarium opened with the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The centerpiece of the 45,000 square foot Aquarium is The Water Planet, a 10,000 square foot exhibition that incorporates new modes of exhibition, design and technology. Aquariums typically provide opportunities for meaningful, rich encounters between their visitors and the animals they house.  Most focus on environmental outreach and educational efforts. Yet none prior to the Steinhart has provided an encompassing view of the link between water and life that makes this planet unique.  Moreover, the Steinhart employs sophisticated media techniques and advanced design and production methodologies to create exhibits that move their visitors to explore beyond what is immediately apparent in a living exhibition. This expanded opportunity for learning about life and the environment is exactly what the Academy—an internationally-recognized research institution whose public face combines an aquarium, natural history museum and planetarium under one roof—wanted to provide in its new facility. The Steinhart Aquarium exhibits the diversity of life on earth and the varied habitats it creates.  The Water Planet focuses specifically on water and the way life adapts to water’s many different conditions and states -- extremes of abundance and scarcity; stillness and movement; salinity and freshness; heat and cold.  It gives visitors an opportunity to learn about and contemplate the relationship between water and life—a relationship that most people take for granted.  The Water Planet firmly establishes new visual, conceptual and creative benchmarks for aquarium design. To form its fluid walls and interactive islands, Thinc, the lead exhibition designer for the Aquarium as a whole, turned to Urban A&O, an award-winning architectural firm and frequent collaborator. Urban A&O creates extraordinary forms using CATIA-based parametric modeling software that enables precise control of design and manufacturing. A result of this process, The Water Planet’s tactile, rippling surfaces link the exhibition’s 39 tanks of living organisms with interactive media and video projection. Three islands, rich in interactive media and living exhibits of their own, sensuously march through the center of the gallery. Like the walls, they are fluidly shaped to accommodate close viewing of the exhibits, tactile interaction with media, seating for visitors and technical access for the staff. The island’s fluid forms are designed to invite touch, which in turn triggers media windows to open on many of the surfaces and create flows of water and steam across them.  The surrounding walls, punctuated by sinuous apertures that reveal living habitats behind them, also create a seamless media field with 13 interlinked projections transforms the exhibit space each hour into a full-round theater that can deliver a powerful and entertaining educational program. A half-dozen “Dive Stations” provide the chance for tactile, hands-on experience with real specimens like dried corals and shark’s teeth, with interactive media that contextualize the objects and provide exciting encounters with the organisms as living creatures.  The walls and exhibition islands of the Water Planet reflect the sensuality of water via the heightened forms that Urban A&O was able to create.  The complex curving and molded surfaces seemingly flow from one to another.  The forms invite touch, which in turn will trigger media windows to open on many of the surfaces and create flows of water and steam across them.  A seamless media field with 10 interlinked projections transforms the exhibit space each hour into a full-round theater, delivering a powerful and entertaining educational program. “Dive Stations” provide the chance for tactile, hands-on experience with real specimens like dried corals and shark’s teeth, with interactive media that contextualize the objects and provide exciting encounters with the organisms as living creatures.  The result is an immersive, tactile, full-body learning experience. The result is an immersive, tactile, full-body learning experience. It offers visitors opportunities to touch water in its many states—as mist, steam, flowing and frozen—and the exhibition’s forms and surfaces embody the tactility and sensuality of water. The exhibition integrates living animals and powerful multimedia in order to bring complex natural phenomena within ready grasp of young visitors and families. Thinc consistently explores new modes of visitor experience. Urban A&O\\\'s innovative work has tested limits of material and form through the development of new spatial geometries with strong conceptual underpinnings that link directly to the Water Planet’s needs. Working with the agency of parametric modeling tools, the firm’s capability to bring radical new forms into practice provided the all-important link between conceptualization and realization that the two firms sought. Urban A&O is one of a handful of design firms that operate within the sophisticated computer design environment of parametric modeling, employing the powerful tools of CATIA-based software.  Urban A&O’s innovative work has tested limits of material and form through the development of new spatial geometries with strong conceptual underpinnings that link directly to the Water Planet’s needs.  Working with the agency of parametric modeling tools, the firm’s capability to bring radical new forms into practice provided the all-important link between conceptualization and realization. Wall Design: Urban A&O Photography by Tom Hennes  

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