Wednesday, September 24, 2008

California Academy of Sciences is the Pinnacle Pt. 1

Is the Renzo Piano California Academy of Sciences Building the apex of green architecture and green roof design? That may be a moot question, at least this week - as everyone fawns with with the imminent opening of the building, and a range of sneak previews from, amongst other, Metropolis, The New York Times, and a variety of others in the blogosphere. The verdict: absolute success.

:: images via Metropolis

In Part 1, we delve into the Metropolis article - which showcases the project with a comprehensive three-part article on the project, the green roof, and the engineering aspects of the project. And in a rare feat, I think the online version is better than the print one... that's a rarity. But with images like this, it's not hard to see why each one needs to be savored, for it's beauty, function, and inventiveness. Metropolis asks the big question: "How did this low-­profile ­natural history museum and research facility become a half-billion-dollar marquee project by a Pritzker Prize–winning architect, not to mention a landmark in sustainable design?".

:: images via Metropolis

The organic forms are simple yet seem revolutionary in today's world of table-flat rooftops. It's an engineering feat and an interesting exterior visual (can we say a building this horizontal can be iconic?) for one, as well as a way of connecting interior forms to exterior - as you can see with the cutaway section which offers spherical rooms for displays.

:: Click these to expand to full size - images via Metropolis

It's well known that this is within view in close proximity to the much discussed and loved de Young Museum by Herzog & de Meuron with Walter Hood. No where is a can you probably spend a couple of days in a field trip of world class landscape architecture within a block of each other. I would be interesting to see how far they could have pushed the tying together of these two sites into a cohesive fabric... maybe a future project?

:: Site Plan - image via Metropolis

I hate to sound to myopic in my views on the project, but the story, is mostly about the roof. As told in Metropolis: "Once he was selected, the first thing Piano knew was that he wanted the new roof to be the same height as the one he’d stood on top of: 36 feet. It was an appropriate scale for the park yet tall enough to offer a view, and it retained a vestigial memory of the old building, a local landmark. It was only later, when he learned that some program features—the planetarium and the rain-forest exhibit, for example—would need to be taller, that Piano developed the rooftop’s signature hills. “The idea was: keep the roof at thirty-six feet, and every time you need more, just wave up,” he says. “It’s a landscape that witnesses what is underneath it.”

:: image via Metropolis

The rooftop became the identity and the fabric. From Metropolis: "The other big idea behind the roof—that it should be a habitat for native California plants, birds, and insects—developed more slowly, as Piano’s team worked with botanists from the museum. The planted roof is not just a wildlife corridor; it also insulates the building, reducing energy consumption, and absorbs 98 percent of storm-water runoff. Meanwhile, Piano’s “waves” mean that most of the building doesn’t need air-conditioning: cool air from outside flows down the hills and into the building’s central piazza, while hot air on the ex­hibit floor rises, hugging the planetarium and rain forest, and is released through automated skylights in the hills."

:: image via Metropolis

As the identity, the rooftop was "...designed to respect the natural world even as it appropriates it, serving at once as a wildlife habitat and a first-rate work of art." And in form true of a science museum, there had to be rigor behind the implementation of the rooftop. At 2.5 acres, it was a technological and logistic challenge even without the interjection of artificial topography.

:: image via Metropolis

In addition to the analog of natural geological substrate: "The roof has seven signature hills, created to evoke San Francisco’s topography, and is blanketed with nine native plant species, which were chosen for their ability to attract pollinating creatures like bumblebees and hummingbirds, and butterflies such as the threatened Bay checkerspot. Like other green roofs, this one helps regulate temperature indoors and out—though the urban-heat-island effect isn’t a dire concern in San Francisco, where the mean annual temperature is about 58 degrees Fahren­heit. The roof is also designed to absorb 98 percent of all storm water, a decided benefit in a city where the sewage system is often overwhelmed during heavy downpours."

:: Plant Palette - image via Metropolis

Definitely the highlight of the article was the 'conflict' between Piano and landscape architects from SWA Group and Rana Creek: "Executing the concept, however, wasn’t easy. One of Piano’s first demands was for an assortment of plant species with a particular kind of look: “He wanted it to be very monolithic, very neat and clean and green,” says John Loomis, of the SWA Group. But the plants that look good together and the plants that thrive together are not always one and the same. So Paul Kephart, of Rana Creek, experimented with 29 different plants before hitting on a selection that would promote biodiversity as well as meet Piano’s aesthetic requirements. “I wanted as much diversity as possible, and I challenged Renzo on this,” Kephart says. “He said, ‘Paul, this is all very interesting, but it has to be beautiful.’” After a few “spirited discussions,” the team chose four perennials and five colorful annuals that live well together, are low-growing (and thus “clean-looking”), and have extensive green periods." This is evident in early renderings as well:

:: image via Metropolis

And some botanical innovation, via Paul Kephart at Rana Creek: "A further challenge surfaced when Piano explained that he wanted to transport and install the plants without using petroleum-based plastic containers. Kephart responded by creating an innovative tray (soon to be patented) from coconut-husk fiber, a waste product from coconut trees. This BioTray is held together with natural latex and lined with 36 strains of fungi, which supply nutrients to the plants. Laid in large num­bers on the roof like tiles, the trays degrade within three years, leaving behind a colorful carpet of vegetation."

:: Patent Pending? - image via Metropolis

And in completing the circle, the evolution continues: "But, as with any living system, it will continue to evolve in unpredictable ways. “One of the most fascinating questions I get is, ‘What will this roof look like in five years?’” Almeda says. “People are always astounded when I say, ‘I’d like to be able to tell you, but I can’t.’” Like animals, plant species com­pete with each other for common resources, and it is not easy to predict which ones will win out. There has already been an unforeseen explosion of growth as birds and bees have dispersed foreign pollen and seeds on the site. “Wildlife will bring things to you that you may not want,” Almeda says. “And, if they bring a native species, just because it’s native doesn’t mean that we will keep it on the roof.” A few water-sucking willows, for instance, were evicted. “If we left them, they’d take the water from everything else and nothing would survive,” Almeda says. A noninvasive monkey flower, on the other hand, was allowed to stay."

:: image via Metropolis

Getting inside the building, one of the amazing spaces is the central atrium - which pretty much speaks for itself in the following pics. I think it's time for a field trip... :)

:: image via Metropolis

Aside from the views of the project - the story of Piano's unique interview will live on in architectural lore for, well, probably forever. In either an act of brazen hubris or absolute humility, the story goes as follows: "...the final architect to interview, Renzo Piano, arrived with one ­associate—his daughter, Lia—and took just ten minutes to set up. When the committee members entered the room, they were surprised to see that he had no presentation materials with him. He had used the ten minutes to pull a table from the corner and rearrange all the chairs into a circle around it. Piano told them that he didn’t know how he would design a new California Academy of Sciences. He would need to hear from them before he could answer that question. “If you go into a meeting and you already know everything,” Piano says, “you lose the capacity to understand."
Some of Piano's sketches...

:: image via Metropolis

Read on for the NY Times coverage in Pt. 2 coming soon...

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