Clouds race across the landscape. The sun jets across the sky. Sailboats, cargo ships, and ferries move over the water at lightning speed, zipping past the Embarcadero and disappearing under the curve of the Bay Bridge. Enormous pilings are sunk in minutes, and buildings are framed almost as quickly.
The time-lapse video shows the new Exploratorium taking shape on Piers 15. Oddly, the sped-up footage seems more realistic than a real-time view would be; it better evokes the pace and scale of this, the biggest project on the San Francisco waterfront since the AT&T ballpark was built over a decade ago.
The building site looks and sounds like the bustling dockside it once was, with men and women representing dozens of trades at work—from plumbers and electricians to crane operators and scuba divers. Countless machines compete for the highest decibel level. Scissor lifts are in constant motion, and snub-nosed boats move workers along under the piers.
Most of this activity is focused on the work involved in preserving the two historic “sheds” on the site. But between them, there’s a brand new structure rising—the all-glass cube of the Bay Observatory, the only completely new construction at the Exploratorium’s future home.
The Bay Observatory Takes Shape
Building along the edge of the water, workers lay the groundwork for the new glass-and-steel structure. Cranes lift enormous beams into a frame that will support floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views of the city, the bay, and the ever-changing sky.
Designed as a contemporary counterpart to the historic piers on either side, the new building will inject a note of change to the site—a transparent lens on the waterfront.
On the ground floor, the Bay Observatory will house the museum’s café, while on the second floor, a 6,000-square-foot gallery will span both indoor and outdoor areas. The building’s “front porch,” so to speak, will be a stunning events plaza.
Views from atop the Bay Observatory are astounding—a sweep from Angel Island all the way around to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. On the west side, you can see the pattern of high-rises in the financial district transforming into the neighborhoods of North Beach and Telegraph Hill. Even more striking is the surrounding water: It’s everywhere, dominating most of the views, sloshing underfoot (we are on a pier, after all), and flavoring the breeze with the tang of salt and sea life.
Pedagogically ambitious as well as visually stunning, the Bay Observatory aims to give visitors a direct, visceral experience of the natural and built environments surrounding the museum’s new nine-acre campus, which itself balances between old and new, city and bay, water and sky.
Sensing the Environment
In case the word “observatory” makes you picture a telescope trained on the heavens, know that the Bay Observatory is not a planetarium. It is, rather, an observatory in the most classic sense of the word—a structure that makes observation of the environment accessible.
The building itself accomplishes that by being—very intentionally—as transparent as we could make it. On the inside, the exhibits and experiences people will find there are geared to helping them slow down and pay attention to the subtle patterns and processes of both the natural and built environments.
“We’re wiring the area with sensors to document and measure what’s happening around us,” says curator Susan Schwartzenberg. “We’re just beginning our investigations, but we’ll be gathering information over time about the environmental conditions of the location. In fact, every exhibit is tied to a view or location, something within the immediate landscape that can be watched or detected.” The sky, too, will be visible, through an opening called an oculus, which will turn the entire room into an optical lens that projects the trail of the sun across the terrazzo floor.
“There will be views in every direction, including up,” says Project Manager Kristina Woolsey. “But it’s not about having views. It’s about doing something with them.”
Every aspect of the site gives developers fodder for exploration—the cityscape, the waterfront, and the transportation network that surrounds it. “The exhibits probably won’t be fixed in place,” says co-curator Kristina Larsen, “which gives us the opportunity to consider rearranging, recontextualizing, and transforming the spaces for different purposes.”
Making New Connections
The building will also offer new opportunities for partnerships and community connections. Our docks will host scientific vessels that can share information from their expeditions with the visiting public. The space will house changing exhibits, host conferences and symposia, and—with a great public café and a rooftop terrace—offer premier rental space for community events and celebrations.
No matter what the occasion or use of the space, it’s clear that the new Bay Observatory will be, as Woolsey notes, “an icon on the waterfront; an amazing piece of architecture that connects the city to the bay, and gives learners personal access to important scientific ideas.”
This article first appeared on Exploratorium.edu in 2012.