Aquarium's glass wall puts Australia on the street

Architecture Review

December 15, 2005|By EDWARD GUNTS | EDWARD GUNTS,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

If you pass by the newly expanded National Aquarium in Baltimore this month and peer through the large glass wall that faces Pratt Street, you'll be looking at the re-creation of a remote part of Australia, complete with a simulated river canyon, 35-foot waterfall and exotic birds flying overhead.

The effect is so lifelike and multilayered, it's as if someone took a giant shovel and scooped up a slice of Australia, transported it to Baltimore and put it under glass for all to see.

The size, realistic nature and visibility of this complicated ecosystem, and the wide array of creatures that now call it home, are the primary wonders of Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes, the $74.6 million aquarium addition that opens tomorrow on Inner Harbor Pier 3.

They're also the main reasons the expansion represents a breakthrough not only for Baltimore's 24-year-old aquarium but for aquarium design in general. With this exhibit, people won't have to go inside the aquarium to see exotic animals and habitats. They'll be able to see them from out on the street, even across the harbor.

"For the first time, we've made the aquarium legible," said architect Peter Chermayeff, co-founder of Chermayeff and Poole, lead designer of the addition. "We wanted it to really feel a part of the city, so that people just going by in a car or taxi get the sense that the aquarium is a place of life."

Chermayeff and architect Bobby Poole also designed the original aquarium, which opened in 1981, when they were partners of Cambridge Seven Associates. "It's what we've wanted to happen for all these years - to make the aquarium as transparent as possible so people having lunch at Harborplace can look across and see the lights and activity inside," Poole said.

The addition is modeled on a river canyon in the Northern Territory of Australia that even most Australians have never seen. This is not the cliche Australian Outback of Crocodile Dundee movies, and visitors won't find bouncing kangaroos or cuddly koala bears. It's a remote region that contains some of the most unusual creatures on the planet, including flying foxes, snake-necked turtles and reptiles that haven't changed much since prehistoric times.

As complex as it was to design and build, the expansion grew out of modest origins. Aquarium officials wanted to improve visitor services, such as the gift shop and cafe. They contemplated an addition that would have been more of a continuation of the original building on Pier 3. But Chermayeff and Poole took a risk and proposed that the aquarium create an addition that was dramatically different from the original, and it paid off.

The architects argued that the aquarium needed a signature exhibit to cap any addition and provide a new front door for the institution. The aquarium board embraced that suggestion and decided the theme should be Australia's Northern Territory, an area no other American institution has attempted to re-create.

Another key design decision was not to echo the 1981 building, a modernist work that has drawn widespread acclaim as the Inner Harbor's sculptural centerpiece. While the original building's signal flag graphics and neon lights are colorful and lively, the structure is essentially introverted, in the sense that people outside can't see in and people inside don't have much opportunity to look out. The glass pyramid on top was meant to provide a glimpse of the rain forest exhibit there, but it's so high in the building that people at street level don't get much of a view.

For the latest addition, the architects designed a "glass cube" even more transparent than the pyramid, and set it on the pier rather than six stories in the air. Its crystalline skin was their way of creating an inviting entrance, while balancing the insular qualities of the original building with a more extroverted expression that reflects the aquarium's goal of reaching out to the community.

As part of providing a more inviting entrance, the team created a waterfront park that puts free exhibits right out on the pier. Designed by Elliot Rhodeside, Kevin Fisher and Faye Harwell of Rhodeside & Harwell in Alexandria, Va., exhibits show sections of Maryland topography, from salt marshes of the Eastern Shore to the mountains of Western Maryland. A 22-foot-long granite map on the pier shows the boundaries of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

December is hardly the best month to explore the park. But when the weather turns warm, the plants will grow and docents will be on hand to talk about Maryland landscapes. Rhodeside & Harwell also put brick pavers, seats and lights around the edge of Pier 3 - long overdue changes that help establish the entire wharf as the "aquarium pier" and transform it from an unfinished pedestrian pass-through zone to a welcoming urban oasis.

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