Its undulating green roof studded with porthole-shaped windows, the new home of the California Academy of Sciences, which opened last September in Golden Gate Park, has fast become an icon of a new era in sustainable architecture. Here, design is no longer compromised by an ecological imperative. It is a natural outgrowth of it. Architect Renzo Piano told the Academy’s directors that he wanted “to lift up a piece of the park and slide the museum underneath.” Eight years and almost half a billion dollars later, that vision has come to pass: Housed beneath a living roof carpeted with 1.7 million native plants are San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, the Kimball Natural History Museum, as well as new labs and offices for the Academy’s world-class experts in evolution, systematics, biogeography, ecology, and organismal biology. These experts, also the museum’s curators, have added an exhibition on climate and the Earth’s future. Also new is an aquarium that holds the world’s largest indoor coral reef. Wrapped in a façade of low-iron glass (for better natural sunlight), the museum is linked both visually and functionally to its environs. The roof blends seamlessly into the surrounding park, while structural elements that aren’t themselves natural instead mimic nature: A “spiderweb” of glass covers an interior courtyard, and solar cell “leaves” are pressed into the building’s glass canopy. This play between the organic and the inorganic, the natural and the quasi-natural, is Piano’s trademark. But perhaps the most innovative aspect of the museum is its functional expression of sustainability. Walls stuffed with denim insulation, floors equipped with radiant-heating technology, and skylights that open and close to regulate ventilation unabashedly display the structure’s eco-agenda. Indeed, the Cal Academy was awarded LEED-platinum certification, making it the largest public building in the world to receive the distinction. It’s a place whose complex conceptual framework — and “flying carpet” carapace — will not soon be matched.
Originally published May 8, 2009