Chattanooga aquarium tells Tennessee story in freshwater ecosystem

January 31, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

When Chattanooga's civic leaders first approached architect Peter Chermayeff about designing an aquarium for the banks of the Tennessee River, they envisioned an attraction similar to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the pyramid-topped aquatic museum he designed 15 years before.

But Mr. Chermayeff recommended that instead of cloning Baltimore's showpiece, which offers a global view of marine life, the Chattanoogans focus on the ecosystems of the Tennessee River Valley and create America's first major institution devoted primarily to freshwater habitats.

While the suggestion appealed to the group's regional pride, the Chattanoogans had their doubts. Freshwater fish are by and large less colorful than the exotic Achilles tangs and mandarins and harlequin tusk fishes from the Indo-Pacific or Atlantic coral reef. A freshwater theme would also rule out the crowd-pleasing bottlenose dolphins and beluga whales from the open ocean. What would be the showstopper?

The response from Mr. Chermayeff and his firm, Cambridge Seven Associates, was to make the entire building the showstopper -- Chattanooga's "very own, home-grown cathedral of conservation," as Mayor Gene Roberts describes it.

Instead of bringing exotic fish from around the world to the hills of Tennessee, Cambridge Seven and its exhibit design partner, Lyons/Zaremba, tell the story of the Tennessee River in a 130,000-square-foot building that simulates riverine habitats from Appalachia to the Gulf of Mexico, and is a metaphor for the river itself.

Their biggest challenge was to take the mostly ordinary plants and wildlife that depend on the river -- rainbow trout from forest streams, river otters from mountain pools -- and exhibit them in such a way that they seem out of the ordinary.

"This building is a love affair with the river," says Mr. Chermayeff. "We came to the conclusion that we should use the river as a story line, a linear sequence, literally from its origins in the Great Smoky Mountains through its midstream and down to the Mississippi delta. The key was to find the intrinsic interest, the excitement, in what seems ordinary but isn't."

Open since last May, the privately funded Tennessee Aquarium has more than a few Baltimore connections, starting with a staff headed by William Flynn and Jackson Andrews, both formerly with the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

The $45 million building also features many Cambridge Seven trademarks familiar to Marylanders -- rooftop pyramids, a one-way circulation path, back-lit graphics and fish-themed art work by Ivan Chermayeff, Peter's older brother.

Benefiting from ever-advancing technology, though, Cambridge Seven has surpassed its previous aquarium efforts to create richly detailed, sensitively interpreted environments that not only show off fish and animals but take eco-tourists on a three-dimensional journey to the worlds they inhabit.

The architects also infused their essentially modernist building with historical and cultural references, conjuring up everything from 13th century Italian palazzi to the backwoods folk arts of the Appalachians.

The result is a waterfront attraction that has far exceeded first-year attendance projections of 600,000. It passed the 1 million mark in November, just six months after its opening, and is on target for a first-year attendance total of 1.5 million -- about the same annual figure as Baltimore's aquarium.

The goal in Tennessee, Mr. Chermayeff explains, was to put architecture in service of a larger objective: connecting people to the river by setting up encounters that stimulate an emotional response.

"The encounter is what it's all about," he says. "The aquarium is intended as an immersion experience, where visitors will be surrounded by the animals and feel their presence all around. We've tried to get the interior architecture to be so secondary it seems to disappear."

Starting in the park

A visitor's experience begins on the banks of the Tennessee River, where a 2-acre, $10 million park and plaza were created to mark the birthplace of present-day Chattanooga and the point where river and city meet.

Called Ross's Landing, after founder and Cherokee Indian chief John Ross, the unusual combination of landscaping and public art is part of a $750 million program of capital improvements for this city of 152,000 that also will include a children's museum, visitors' center, Coca-Cola bottling museum, waterfront housing and 22-mile Riverwalk.

Ross's Landing was designed by the New York firm SITE and Virginia-based landscape architects EDAW, in collaboration with Robert Seals Architects of Chattanooga, public artists Stan Townsend and Jack Mackie, and others.

According to SITE's James Wines, the park is arranged as a se

ries of 35 bands that connote the passage of time, tracing the story of the city with artifacts that depict milestones such as the Civil War and the growth of the railroad industry.

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