top of page

2014 MCHAP

California Academy of Sciences

Renzo Piano Building Workshop

San Francisco, CA, USA

September 2008


Mark Gesen Carroll Olaf de Nooyer


Stantec (Local Architect) Arup (Engineering consultants)


Gregory Farrington - Museum Director


© RPBW - Renzo Piano Building Workshop Architects Tim Griffith Stefano Goldberg - Publifoto Genova Tom Fox - SWA Group


The ambition for the California Academy of Sciences was to create a new home for their existing and future needs that would propel them into the twenty-first century as a major player in the scientific community. Therefore, their desire for the new building was to optimize the use of resources, minimize environmental impact and serve as an educational model by demonstrating how humans can live and work in a building that is environmentally responsible and user friendly. This led to the design of a new facility that integrates architecture, landscape and helps to set a new standard for energy efficiency with passive and active environmentally responsible engineering systems. The principle guidelines to the project were to first design a new building with a smaller foot print than the existing structure while maintaining some of the old iconic features. Second, incorporate environmentally responsible construction technology, i.e. controlled natural light, natural ventilation, efficient use and reuse of water, and carefully chosen recycled and renewable building materials. Third, integrate new technologies to generate energy with renewable resources. Furthermore, it was immediately understood that the architecture of the new Academy needed to diagrammatically express the different functions as well as announce that sustainable buildings can be exciting and beautiful. The sophisticated computer modeling, mockups and prototype testing was the process by which the museum obtained a LEED platinum certification.


The challenge of this project was to design a building for the California Academy of Sciences, the great cultural and scientific institution in San Francisco, that has a strong collective vocation for the built and natural environment. The California Academy of Sciences is sited in the heart of Golden Gate Park, directly facing the Music Concourse and the De Young Museum. The existing Academy was an array of twelve buildings which were constructed over a period of eight decades reflecting the different architectural styles of their time. After the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 many of the twelve buildings were seriously damaged beyond repair obliging the Academy to rethink their long-term future. The Academy’s mission is to, “explore, explain and to sustain life.” This mission is fulfilled through their substantial increasing collection of seventeen million artifacts, extensive research departments, teaching facilities and exhibition spaces including a large aquarium. Since the earthquake of 1989 visitor attendance was diminishing and it was evident that the antiquated buildings were no longer adequate. Utilizing government bonds and private contributions the Academy’s Board of Trustees and staff recognized the need and desire to rebuild a new structure using the latest technologies that would house all their functional needs in one building and on one site in Golden Gate Park. Emphasis was placed on using the architecture to express and convey their passion for the knowledge of nature and the fact that the earth is fragile.


The new Academy plan is divided in two parts: public and private. The public activities i.e. aquarium, planetarium, education and exhibition spaces are oriented around an internal piazza and face the Music Concourse. The more private activities, i.e. laboratories, offices, and collection storage face a dense wooded area towards Middle Drive. However, there are selected views from the public exhibition areas into the more private back of house research areas to facilitate the interconnectivity between the research and exhibition. The design includes a living green roof covering almost four acres, like a piece of the park that unifies the different building functions. This new roof is covered with 1,700,00 selected autochthonous species planted in specially conceived biodegradable coconut-fiber containers. The roof geometry is flat at the perimeter edge and like a natural landscape, becomes increasingly undulated as it moves towards the center forming a series of domes of various sizes rising up from the roof plane. The two larger domes cover the planetarium and the rain forest exhibitions. These two domes are speckled with a pattern of operable skylights automated to open and close for ventilation. The soil’s moisture, combined with the phenomenon of thermal inertia, cools the inside of the Academy significantly, thus avoiding the need for air-conditioning on the ground floor public areas and research offices along the façade. Photovoltaic cells are laminated between two glass panels that form the transparent canopy around the perimeter of the living green roof. These photocells provide more than 5% of the electrical demands of the Academy. In addition, operable facades systems are utilized with motorized sunshades to provide additional natural ventilation and to control solar heat gain.

bottom of page