Since the National Aquarium in Baltimore opened 20 years ago this week, visitors have had to venture into its buildings on Piers 3 and 4 to be exposed to the magical "world of water" inside. The only free exhibit was the seal pool on the west side of Pier 3.
But if the aquarium leaders have their way, future visitors will be able to get a sense of the exhibits before they even walk in the door.
The latest plans for the $48 million expansion call for the visitor experience to start outside on Pier 3, with a variety of free exhibits on the open plaza leading to the aquarium.
The bulk of the addition will rise several stories and have glass walls on two sides. Through the glass, visitors will be able to glimpse the newest major exhibit - the replica of a river canyon in the Australian Outback, complete with a 40-foot-tall waterfall.
"We've always wanted to bring the inside out a little bit," explained Mark Seely, senior director of capital planning and facilities. "We wanted to make an important place out of what was an under-utilized area, to express the soul of the aquarium out on the pier."
Planned for construction by 2005 just north of the aquarium's original building on Pier 3, the expansion will be the first major addition to the Inner Harbor attraction since the Marine Mammal Pavilion opened 11 years ago. The first phase of an $88.6 million master plan that will result in changes both to Pier 3 and to the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4, it will contain a cafe, gift shop and a new entry to the rest of the aquarium in addition to the exhibit on Australia.
The architects for the addition, Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole Inc. of Boston, originally proposed a building that would be a continuation of the original design, with a concrete base and a glass pyramid at the top. Beneath the pyramid would be the major exhibit.
The architects have since revised the design so the major element is much more transparent - a glass cube that reveals what's inside and encourages people to come closer. Visible through the glass will be portions of the River Canyon exhibit, with a waterfall that re-creates one at Kakadu National Park in Australia.
"When you approach from Pratt Street, the first thing you'll see is the waterfall," said aquarium executive director David Pitten- ger. "It's going to be very interesting at night."
Architect Peter Chermayeff said the changes on the plaza are designed to add life to the pier while making it more attractive. He said he has always regretted that the original plan for covering the pier with a carpet of red brick was abandoned in an 11th-hour cost-cutting measure, and the pier was left with a concrete surface.
Chermayeff said the exhibits could range from re-creations of Maryland wetlands to movable carts from which aquarium staffers might show off living creatures and aquatic artifacts. There also would be a place for people to line up and buy tickets, but that would not be as prominent as the exhibits.
Putting exhibits outside the building with a brick promenade all around, he said, will help establish that the pier is part of the aquarium's Inner Harbor campus, and that the visitor experience starts the minute people step off Pratt Street. It also will finish off the pier, while allowing educational programs to spill outside the building - a new form of community outreach.
"It's not just architecture," Chermayeff said of the proposed changes. "It's people from the staff coming out on the pier and doing things with other people. It's more active. It's not just eating hot dogs. It'll be a richer place."
As an environmental gesture, the pierside exhibits represent an attempt to "take the aquarium and extend it out to the city," he added. Once they're in place, "you won't always have to pay admission to get the sense that you've come to the aquarium."
Aquarium leaders say they expect to raise $32 million from public sources and $56.6 million from private partners for the total project. Once it's complete, they hope to draw 2 million visitors a year, up from 1.7 million in recent years.