It used to be easy to tell which building was which at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
The original aquarium on Pier 3 was a dark, dreamlike sequence of spaces that immersed visitors in mysterious underwater worlds. Midnight blue walls, charcoal gray carpet, low light levels, brilliant graphics and stunning aquatic habitats helped make it a thoroughly inward-oriented building.
The newer Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 was a bright, open, airy place where visitors could take in sweeping views of the harbor and city skyline while waiting to see bottlenose dolphins in a skylit, 1,300-seat amphitheater. The color scheme included baby blue and beige walls and studded-rubber floors in sea green and tomato red, while large windows made it a much more outward-oriented building.
Designed by different architects for different purposes, these were the Mutt 'n' Jeff of the aquarium world, architectural equivalents of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They never quite gave the impression that they were parts of the same institution.
But it won't be such a cinch to tell them apart much longer. Just in time for the aquarium's 11th anniversary this weekend, directors announced recently that the pavilion will gain a new layer of exhibits by next spring and be renovated to look and feel more like the original building.
Judging by the first exhibit to be completed and future plans, it's the best thing to happen to the aquarium since Gov. William Donald Schaefer took his swim in the seal pool.
The first phase of the marine mammal makeover, completed this summer, involved the underwater viewing area, where visitors can see dolphins in the main pool through a large acrylic window. In the original design by Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick, it was an alcove off the lower-level cafe, a nebulous space that was lost amidst the dining tables and chairs.
Now the viewing area has been enclosed as part of a new exhibit called "Portraits in Conservation." Walls were built to separate the space from the noisy cafe, and large backlit photos were installed to depict marine mammals from around the world. Gray carpet covers the floor and stairs previously clad in locker room rubber. Light levels are dimmed so the chief illumination comes from the tank itself. And for once, visitors in large numbers are using the space the way it was meant to be used, lingering before and after dolphin shows to watch the mammals underwater.
The transformation of the underwater viewing area provides a preview of the changes recommended by Cambridge Seven Associates, architects of the original aquarium on Pier 3 but not involved with the Pier 4 annex. The firm was brought back to work on the changes in conjunction with Grieves Worrall Wright & O'Hatnick.
"It's just Band-Aids, really," says Cambridge Seven partner Peter Chermayeff. "What we're doing is a modest addition of exhibits within the shell and a modest transformation of the space -- controlling light and views and allowing exhibits to hold their own and add some strength."
Early changes can also be seen around the cafe and gift shop, where the beige and blue walls have been painted dark blue and the food service counter made less prominent. But the biggest changes are still to come.
Plans call for the entire perimeter of the building -- the wide corridor all around the 1,300-seat Lyn P. Meyerhoff Amphitheater -- to be redesigned to bring it more in line with the character of spaces on Pier 3. Out will go the beige walls and much of the red trim. Gone will be the rubber floors. Even the large windows will be covered. Instead, the undercroft beneath the stadium seats will be divided into interactive exhibits that focus on various aspects of marine mammals -- habitats, sounds, feeding -- and the aisles will be narrowed to lessen the feeling of disorientation. The bridge between Piers 3 and 4, which feels like one of those airport terminal accordion tubes that connect the plane to the passenger waiting area, will be covered with murals that hint at TC the experience inside each building.
For the next six months it's going to be a mishmash, with some areas Cambridge Seven-ized and others still in their original state. As more work is completed, the buildings will become a vastly more coherent complex. As a later phase of the project, the architects propose to modify the two-story cafe by removing the giant sculpture of Scylla the humpback whale that hangs in the space and decking over the floor to create more room for exhibits.
The amphitheater itself, meanwhile, won't be altered at all. It was always the best part of the Grieves design, with good seats and sightlines. If anything, the stronger contrast between light and dark should make the amphitheater all the more effective and memorable -- a light in the center of darkness.