Living roof tops Sciences Academy plan

Design will be revealed today
John King, Chronicle Urban Design Writer
Wednesday, July 10, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.

Golden Gate Park could get four acres of greenery added to it in the most unlikely location: atop a new home for the California Academy of Sciences.

The environmentally friendly roof -- complete with undulating contours meant to evoke San Francisco's fabled topography -- is the most startling element of the design being disclosed today as the academy begins a drive to build a new $220 million facility to replace its current home on the south edge of the park's Music Concourse.

The academy, one of the nation's leading natural history museums and research centers, has been in Golden Gate Park since 1916. It has sought a new home for years, both because of a desire for a more efficient facility and because the maze of 12 connected structures does not meet modern seismic codes or accessibility requirements.

If San Francisco officials approve the plan, the academy would close in early 2004 and open its new complex in 2008. In between, the 250 staff members and 18 million research specimens -- ranging from microscopic plants to fish stored in jars -- would move to a temporary location.

The architect for the project is Renzo Piano of Italy. He is a past recipient of the Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel, and among the handful of international architects courted by image-conscious institutions. His current projects range from an expansion of the Art Institute of Chicago to a 1,000-foot-high skyscraper in London.

Academy officials say the design's villagelike cluster of spaces under a contoured roof took shape in two years of discussions.

"We didn't seek an architect's particular 'look.' We wanted someone who would be responsive to our needs," said executive director Dr. Patrick Kociolek, explaining the desire to go with Piano rather than one of his flashier peers. "We wanted a building that is appropriate and blends in."

The project would be larger and costlier than the new M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, which will start construction later this year across the concourse. But academy officials -- eager to avoid the type of controversy spawned by the de Young design's 16-story tower -- stress their attempts to make the new facility settle into place as unobtrusively as possible.

So-called green roofs are unusual in the United States but very much a part of the modern European landscape. The environmental benefits are many: Such roofs can reduce a building's energy needs, slow the runoff of water during storms, and reduce nearby temperatures.

The aim here is also aesthetic. Piano, who will be in San Francisco today to present the design, spoke last year of wanting to make the new building "almost a piece of the park."

His most ambitious hopes proved unsuccessful, such as folding the academy directly into nearby berms. Instead, the idea is to "drape" the roof over a wide rectangular building that needs to swell up from 40 to 65 feet at two points to cover a rebuilt Morrison Planetarium and a new rain forest exhibit.

Rather than be content with giving the academy its own twin peaks, Piano then added other undulations of varying heights to try to tie the roofscape into the hilly city terrain.

Academy officials stress that the current images showing steep green mounds are not final. The plant selection and precise elevations are still being refined.

"For me, these are natural forms, not hard-edged," Kociolek said. "How many bumps there will be? That hasn't been figured out yet."

The design is now at a "schematic" phase, which means the specifics are in flux but enough is in place to start the environmental impact studies. Piano's firm is working with Gordon H. Chong and Partners of San Francisco.

In essence, a group of buildings will be grouped under the sinuous roof. At each corner of the complex will be a two-story structure, housing such things as the academy's research area, classrooms and gift shop. The cross-shaped open area between those structures will have 35-foot ceilings and glass walls to the outside. This area will be reserved for public exhibits, including a new 225,000-gallon Philippine coral reef habitat.

At the center of the cross would be a courtyard framed by circular structures containing the planetarium and rain forest.

Only one of the 12 buildings that now house the academy would be restored -- Africa Hall, known to generations of schoolchildren because of its wildlife dioramas. But the hall's classical stone facade would be duplicated in one of the corner buildings, and the columns that now form the entrance to Steinhart Aquarium would probably be rebuilt.

Before anything gets built, of course, the plan must be approved by City Hall, a process the academy hopes will be finished in one year. Voters already have approved $115 million for the project in two bond measures -- a sign, say hopeful academy officials, that public support will break their way.

The overall cost of the project -- which includes a general endowment, interim storage and creating the exhibits -- is $370 million. Besides the city money and past fund raising, the academy will undertake a $150 million capital campaign.

Aesthetics aside, Kociolek said, he is most excited about the chance to modernize a complex cobbled together over 70 years.

"This building is a response to a whole variety of needs: seismic, leaky roofs, the need to unify our intellectual resources," Kociolek said. "Science is a much more collaborative process today."