What’s a Natural History Museum in the 21st century?

In September, the world welcomed, the most cutting edge state of the art science museum, known as The California Academy of Sciences. Located in the midst of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; standing as a beacon representing the only museum that houses a planetarium, a natural history museum and an aquarium.


Aside from, the visual aesthetic that it embodies, it is a living building. It operates with the rhythms of the day and the seasons of the year – using minimal amounts of energy and water to operate, while using maximum sunlight and natural ventilation.

In addition to photovoltaic panels that generate its own energy, the museum also operates like a smart building. The museum naturally breathes by having a 2.5 acre living roof – which serves as a habitat for local flora and fauna, insulation, storm water run off control and, in addition, to controlling the interior comfort of the building. Its two signature hills, with pierced openings, allow for a stacked effect to take place – releasing the building of hot air, while providing it with fresh cool air through various vents throughout the building supplying it with 40% of natural ventilation.

This museum serves as a hybrid of the natural and the synthetic. A brilliant example of nature and man at its best.

There are microclimates created throughout the museum, taking visitors on a journey from the area’s local habitats, to murky swamps with albino alligators, to rain forest canopies with fluttering birds and butterflies, all the way to a space journey 16 million light years away. It is an extraordinary experience that plays on the senses – visually and literally.

One of the impressive characteristics that was restored, from the original museum built in 1923, is a 3.5 mile pipeline that transports fresh seawater from Ocean Beach – located at the end of Golden Gate Park to the museum. It is an elements that enriches the tide pools and the essence of a natural museum.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the iconic red elevator takes visitors through the various levels is one of his signatures, also found in LACMA in Los Angeles, a museum also designed by Piano.

During one the preliminary meetings about the future of the museum, when it initially closed for renovation 9 years ago, one of the resident scientist proposed the simple question “ What’s a Natural History Museum in the 21st century?” It was a question that lead to the work of art we currently we have today. A brilliant example how simply questioning what we do, can lead to extraordinary things.

The Academy is slated to be awarded a Platinum LEED certification – the largest pubic building to receive such a certification.

For more on Nancy, visit Astrid Design Studio

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