Noted physicist Dr. Frank Oppenheimer unleashed a revolution when he founded San Francisco’s Exploratorium in 1969. A place where visitors could playfully interact with hands-on exhibits—a new invention at that time—to understand natural phenomena, it inspired a brilliant transformation of museums worldwide and remains a model for informal science education. It’s about to become even better.
Having outgrown its current home at the Palace of Fine Arts (PFA), the Exploratorium is moving in 2013 to the Embarcadero, a hub of transport and tourism. After a long search for alternate sites, the Port of San Francisco offered up the historic Piers 15/17, halfway between the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf. Almost five times larger than the PFA, the new nine-acre campus will be more accessible via public transportation, as well as offer scenic outdoor spaces, a restaurant, and other public amenities. It will elevate the Exploratorium’s purpose as both a destination for experiential exhibits and an R&D facility that creates innovative ways to teach and learn.
I designed the Exploratorium’s new home and am a principal with EHDD Architecture. I began my relationship with the institution in 1991 when I participated in a hands-on workshop to develop ideas for better utilizing the PFA. This collaborative effort left a mark on me. I knew that the artists and scientists working there had a genuine interest in improving the place. I also learned that its organizational structure was similar to that of our firm’s—everyone participates in inquiry. This recognition of a like-minded client was important when we began the compelling, yet daunting prospect of moving the Exploratorium. It allowed us to set up an inclusive forum for fostering dialogue and exchanging ideas. We learned from them, and they from us.
This has been rewarding for me as I’ve aimed to interpret the vast structure we’ve inherited and help the Exploratorium see the potential it offers in greatly enhancing what it already excels in doing. While we’ve disagreed at times, the level of debate has always been engaging and energizing, rising above stalemate to move toward a grander vision. This was key to designing a timeless piece of public architecture.
As you might imagine, a project of this magnitude involving an institution as complex and deeply rooted in the city as the Exploratorium has experienced a number of unique issues. Here are just a few highlights:
Creating the Nation’s First Net-Zero-Energy Museum
With reuse and sustainability at the forefront, we designed an energy-efficient building that takes advantage of the site and elements. As part of a comprehensive seismic retrofit, we repaired 5,143 pilings that had been damaged in the 1989 earthquake, protecting a piece of San Francisco’s rich history. An innovative system will draw water from the Bay in order to heat and cool the building. An immense photovoltaic array will be installed on the roof, generating as much power for the Exploratorium as will be consumed.
Coordinating a Large Network of Stakeholders
Great things don’t always come easy, and the new Exploratorium was no exception. Planning and design took four years and involved intense collaborations with an estimated 46 consultants, 14 regulatory agencies, and 17 stakeholder groups. Partners have included the Port of San Francisco, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office, and local residents.
Designing Exhibit Spaces for the Future
It was surprisingly challenging for our team to grasp the immense scale of the piers—each one is as long as three football fields! It was equally challenging to communicate that scale to the Exploratorium. The PFA currently operates on an open plan in which there are few distinct lines or rooms to delineate different exhibits. The new home will include separate gallery spaces, yet they’ve proven hard to envision in a gigantic empty shell. We responded by designing an ultra-flexible building that can support an ever-changing array of exhibits and visitors moving through space.
Enhancing, Not Upstaging, the Institution
EHDD has become increasingly mindful of and adept at strengthening our clients’ missions, rather than upstaging them with architecture. This requires weaving restraint and balance into an appropriate statement and aesthetic that supports the client and solves issues from the inside out over boosting the architect’s ego. The design of the new Exploratorium says a great deal with its subtlety and elegance. We think we have succeeded in creating a place that will lift the image of the Exploratorium in people’s imaginations.
When you look at historic photos of the Embarcadero, it’s clear how vital the piers once were to the dynamism of our city. With the new Exploratorium taking shape, the piers will be no less vital today, but instead of the epicenter where goods are exchanged, now they will host the exchange of ideas.