The New Exploratorium on the Embarcadero

Pier Review

Recently I toured the remarkable new home for San Francisco’s famous Exploratorium — the museum of science, art, and human perception founded by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer) in 1969 — which opens officially on April 17. Formerly housed at the landmark Palace of Fine Arts, it has moved to Piers 15-17 on the Embarcadero near downtown. Resting on new piles driven into the Bay, the impressive 9-acre setting for this “research and development lab for public learning” couldn’t be more fitting. After all, “embarcadero” means docking point and this is an institution that

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takes us on a journey of discovery (embarking from what we know, disembarking with new insights…) in the worlds of biology, physics, listening, cognition, and  visual perception. The pier is now a machine for peering into existence! Here’s

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the way the pier looked before the retrofit and expansion by EHDD Architects, award-winning designers of the Monterey Bay Aquarium among many great projects. (Think of it as a picture of the mind when inspiration is about to strike! Photo: Amy Snyder.) The idea was to rebuild and strengthen the

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structure while inserting new infrastructure, display galleries, classrooms, and offices. George Cogan, chairman of the Exploratorium board, gave the tour when only a few exhibits were in place, but it was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm, especially when he talked about exhibits and devices “that make the invisible visible” (my kind of concept!) Examples include finding out what’s actually in the water of the Bay to seeing how much a skyscraper like the Transamerica pyramid (visible from the glass “observatory” shown in the

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conceptual view above) sways in a high wind or an earthquake. The campus is organized as a series of galleries along the axis from city to Bay: you are pulled inexorably toward the water, which is itself a key exhibit. Even the building’s

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environmental systems — the Exploratorium will generate its own energy through photovoltaics and heat transfer systems with Bay water; the latter pump array is shown above — are exhibit-worthy. I was particularly struck by the great

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round lens/eye between one gallery and another concourse, which seemed to capture what the museum is all about: focusing your gaze so that you see the world in new ways or as if for the first time. It made me think of a line in Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra where the Egyptian queen, lamenting Anthony’s death, says: “His face was as the heavens, and therein stuck/A sun and moon which kept their course and lighted/This little O, the earth…” Indeed, the new Exploratorium makes the earth both smaller and larger — but luckily without the loss of a lover or the fall of an empire.

The phrase “making the invisible visible” is suggestive in many ways, and naturally, houses floated into my consciousness. So I thought, where in a house is perception enhanced? That is, without benefit of flat screen, ipad, or smart phone. I vote for the porch at some quiet, even meditative, moment in the day, when it’s possible to drink in the stillness and concentrate on patterns in

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nature, near and far. Some designs, like Nick Lee’s Ranch House Plan 888-2, shown above, or his newest, Barn-inspired Plan 888-2, shown below,

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encourage such moments. I guess I’m saying that every house should have a place where the world around us can make the imagination soar.

For more on porches click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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