Preview: San Francisco’s New Academy of Sciences

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A few weekends ago, I was lucky to get a preview of San Francisco’s new Academy of Sciences complex in Golden Gate Park. The area has a lot of memories for me as I used to go there as a child many years ago. It was a magical yet historic place with beautiful older architecture that packed all sorts of displays (from the Morrison Planetarium, to the Kimball Natural History Museum to Steinhart Aquarium). I remember well the alligator pit as well as the two-headed gopher snake that excited kids of all ages.

image Originally established in 1853, the Academy is one of the 10th largest natural history museums in the world. According to Wikipedia, the Academy was founded only 3 years after California joined the United States and was the first society of its kind in the Western US. The first official museum opened in 1874 and it was moved to Golden Gate Park in 1916 after the original site was impacted by the 1906 Earthquake. Various building were added over time to make it what came to be a monument in San Francisco. The building (see picture to the left) was damaged again in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and parts were closed down. After inspection, it was decided that it would be more expensive to retrofit than to rebuild and thus started the mammoth process that brought about today’s structure.

I personally did not follow the construction of the new facility and had no expectations on what the design would hold. However, I did have my memories and hoped that what ever the architects had decided to do would not ruin those images in my mind.

Unfortunately, what I eventually saw with the Charter Member Preview was quite different than what I had envisioned. Now don’t get me wrong, it is an amazing work of engineering and is elegant in its own ways. And, it is a work that does reflect our modern times and concerns over energy and the environment. I DO recommend that you see it and experience it. I think that I need to go back again (and will do so) once the “dust settles.” What follows are some pictures that I took of the Academy and some of the surrounding Museums to provide some perspective.

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This is a view from across the way of the new Academy. I thought it would be an interesting treatment to make the photo look old, yet show the modern building in the front with Sutro Tower in the background.

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On the Charter Member Preview Day, the new underground parking garage was full. I have a feeling that for a while, this will be true. However, there is plenty of street parking (free) if you don’t mind a bit of a walk. This is worth it, because there are little “treasures” you may find along the way (e.g., Shakespeare’s Garden or the Japanese Tea Garden).

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Welcome to the California Academy of Sciences.

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Interesting juxtaposition of the palm trees and the solar panels.

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View from the environmentally friendly roof. The larger mounds are the Rainforest roof and the planetarium roof. Reminds me a bit of Teletubby land.

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A close-up of the Rainforest dome. Note the circular skylights.

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This is the Rainforest. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of many of the Charter Members, this was not completed. It does look very interesting though.

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To jump to the lowest level there, this is the tunnel that shows the water underneath the Rainforest. Lots of huge catfish there.

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Since we are down in the Aquarium, this is a great tank that has a huge amount of fish.

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A lion fish posing for my camera.

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More fish on the main level. This is supposed to be a view of the Bay waters, I believe.

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This is the alligator pit with the albino alligator taking a nap. This was an important part of the space for me. The old space had a great focal point that drew crowds. The alligator pit in the old building was a great center of the building. Unfortunately, to me, the new pit looked like they had simply carved it out of the ground and stuck it in. It didn’t command the center of attention as it did before. However, it did look like they kept some of the old tile work and iron railing from the old exhibit. I could be wrong though. Still, there were many kids there loving looking at these large beasts.

I mentioned the two-headed gopher snake that I saw as a child. Obviously, it had long passed its lifespan, but I still wanted my kids to believe me that it did exist. Luckily, tucked away down near the Lion Fish, I did find a very small display that had the skeleton preserved (in a jar) so I was able to prove my point to my kids. I was really happy to see that there!

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Another “survivor” from the old building was the pendulum which swings majestically, knocking down pegs over time. I tried here to take a self-portrait with my daughter. The pendulum is extremely hypnotic and people seem to spend a lot of time here, waiting to see a peg get knocked over.

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Another attempt at a self portrait near the new de Young museum.

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The area really has some interesting architecture. This is what I call the “Tree House” which is an observation area within the de Young museum. I was not able to make it there on this visit. Perhaps in the future I will.

All in all, the new Academy of Sciences is definitely a place that people (and families) should take a day or two to visit. There is a lot to see. While I’m not completely sure that I like the new structure, it does represent a change in our times and our thinking. The architecture is amazing but the use of space, in my opinion, leave much to be desired. I will come back to see it again, once things are fully open and all of the exhibits fully working. I did not talk much about the Natural History section of the building. It does feel much more like the older building and I like how it was done. I felt the Aquarium was hard to navigate, with many intersecting paths and it was easy to go down the same path twice without knowing it. Unfortunately I missed the kids’ section but I have been told that it is a great time-suck if you have kids.

HTD says: The Academy of Sciences is a masterpiece in Design and definitely a must-see. However, there is a lot of un-used space or space that could be used better. What are your opinions?

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18 Responses

  1. It made me want to cry. I went there often as a child and then almost weekly with my son when he was little back 10 years ago. Where is everything? Where is the wonderful crystal display? Where are the beautiful Bufano's from the courtyard? All the planetarium exhibits? The California exhibit? Monarch doesn't even have his flag…he is just relegated to a case with other creatures! Is there anything about earthquakes? It seemed like most of the fish were missing. We used to spend hours opening drawers to find treasures throughout….where did all this go? I could go on for hours, literally. I expected the same treasures in a different environment…but I couldn't find them. And the planetarium wasn't open yet, but from the looks of things, that fabulous place…a place where you truly could sit back and dream…I just don't see it happening. I used to brag that we had everything that New York has, only scaled down. Now we just have an overgrown greenhouse.

  2. It made me want to cry. I went there often as a child and then almost weekly with my son when he was little back 10 years ago. Where is everything? Where is the wonderful crystal display? Where are the beautiful Bufano's from the courtyard? All the planetarium exhibits? The California exhibit? Monarch doesn't even have his flag…he is just relegated to a case with other creatures! Is there anything about earthquakes? It seemed like most of the fish were missing. We used to spend hours opening drawers to find treasures throughout….where did all this go? I could go on for hours, literally. I expected the same treasures in a different environment…but I couldn't find them. And the planetarium wasn't open yet, but from the looks of things, that fabulous place…a place where you truly could sit back and dream…I just don't see it happening. I used to brag that we had everything that New York has, only scaled down. Now we just have an overgrown greenhouse.

  3. @Carol,I must agree with you. There was so much that was missing from the new facility that was great. While the building itself does represent a new era (that of the over-hyped “Green” factor), they should have tried to really make it more of a melding of old and new. I will revisit the Academy in a few months and see what types of things they have changed or added. It just seems that a few displays filled the large space as sort of a stop-gap measure (literally) for the opening.-MIchael

  4. @Carol,

    I must agree with you. There was so much that was missing from the new facility that was great. While the building itself does represent a new era (that of the over-hyped “Green” factor), they should have tried to really make it more of a melding of old and new.
    I will revisit the Academy in a few months and see what types of things they have changed or added. It just seems that a few displays filled the large space as sort of a stop-gap measure (literally) for the opening.
    -MIchael

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