When the National Aquarium in Baltimore was forced to drain the centerpiece Atlantic Coral Reef tank to complete $14 million worth of repairs, its directors had two basic options for refurbishing it:
They could follow the latest industry trend and retrofit the exhibit to include more interpretive gadgets and gizmos that would tell visitors what they're seeing. Or they could focus simply on improving the exhibit itself. As visitors to the newly reopened coral reef tank will discover, the designers made the right choice: By opting to enhance the reef rather than come up with more clever ways of explaining it, they have created an underwater experience that is more powerful than ever.
In the process they have underscored what an ingenious work of design and craftsmanship this exhibit -- and building -- have been all along.
The Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit is one of two two-story, oval-shaped tanks that constitute the centerpiece of the 14-year-old aquarium on Pier 3. Its companion is the Open Ocean shark tank, which reopened in November after a similar overhaul.
Cambridge Seven Associates, the building's architect, designed both of these tanks in an unusual racetrack configuration to give visitors the sense of being surrounded by water and fish. Walking down the crisscrossing concrete ramps in the "infield" of the racetrack, viewers get a sense of descending deeper and deeper into the ocean. Cut off from outside light and views, they become immersed in this shimmering world of water -- and conditioned to respond to the different moods the galleries create.
Both tanks were closed in October 1993 so contractors could repair damage caused by the corrosive effects of salt water on the concrete and underlying steel structures. Workers also altered the life-support system so the exhibit can be controlled -- independently of others in the building.
Aquarium officials decided that as long as they had to drain the coral reef tank, they should take the opportunity to redesign the exhibit as well. To determine what improvements to make, staffers consulted a wide range of experts in marine biology and other sciences.
According to Mark Donovan, senior director of exhibits and design, some suggested supplementing the 335,000-gallon exhibit with video monitors showing footage of real corals, touch-screen terminals containing information about reefs, and other forms of interactive exhibits that are appearing in aquariums and museums around the country.
But aquarium staffers rejected those suggestions. They feared that too many additions would cause visual clutter and detract from the building's main feature -- the naturalistic habitats on display.
"I have a lot of respect for this building and for [Cambridge Seven principal architect] Peter Chermayeff," Mr. Donovan said. "I think it is a landmark building. Our responsibility is to maintain it. It isn't to take my ego or aesthetic and impose it on this place.
"What's strongest here is the entire concept -- the architectural space and the feeling of being surrounded by water. The whole theme is immersion. If you added a lot of interactive technology, you would violate the strongest part of the building."
The first thing a visitor may notice about the refurbished coral reef tank is that it still has the same background music that greeted visitors nearly 14 years ago, a dreamlike electronic score by Newton Wayland.
There's still a 360-degree mural at the top, simulating the views ,, one would get from the deck of a ship at sea. One still walks down the same carpeted ramps in the middle of the ring tank.
But on closer inspection, everything about the coral reef is different. The music is clearer than before. The mural has been repainted. Lighting is softer and more focused. And in innumerable ways, the reef itself is more vibrant, more colorful, .. and above all, more realistic than ever. Walking through this exhibit is like greeting an old friend after a long absence -- and discovering the friend has fared quite well over the years.
Mr. Donovan explained that once the decision was made to stay true to the original concept of the building, designers had to figure out how to take advantage of technological advances of the past 14 years to improve its presentation.
Every aspect of the reef exhibit was rethought and redesigned. The sound system was upgraded. New lights were installed. David Rock of Tucson, Ariz., repainted the mural to make it more vivid and evocative. But the biggest change involved the simulated reef, which carefully duplicates the shape, colors and positions of live coral.