San Francisco’s Exploratorium discovers its outdoor spaces.
By Lydia Lee
One of the most popular exhibits at San Francisco’s Exploratorium is an immersive experience of the city’s iconic fog. When you walk along the 150-foot-long Fog Bridge by the artist Fujiko Nakaya, you disappear into a white mist generated by 800 tiny nozzles. “When everything is fogged up around you, it’s a wonderful ‘noticing’ tool,” says Tom Rockwell, the Exploratorium’s director of exhibits and media studio. “You notice the change in temperature, the air currents, the light.”
It’s fitting that the Exploratorium, one of the original hands-on museums, encourages visitors to engage directly with the wild. The foundation for its outdoor exhibits is a series of broad decks around the waterfront museum—more than an acre of hardscape—designed by the San Francisco firm GLS Landscape | Architecture. Notably, most of the outdoor areas are accessible by the public and don’t require a ticket for admission. They fulfill a state mandate for public waterfront access, but they are also an important part of the museum’s mission to connect with a much wider community beyond its paying attendees. The spaces are testing grounds for outdoor installations destined for other parts of the city and even other towns: little placemaking ambassadors for science and culture. The multiplicity of uses for the Exploratorium’s outdoor spaces is a reminder that the landscapes of today can be fertile ground, even without a single plant in sight.
The Exploratorium’s outdoor extension is a recent development. Founded in 1969 by the physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the museum pioneered the concept of hands-on exploration of scientific phenomena; among its most well-known exhibits is the Tactile Dome, a completely dark, three-dimensional environment that you crawl your way through. Its longtime home was at the Palace of Fine Arts, an ornate, beloved landmark located at the northern edge of town. In the 1990s, museum management began planning a much-needed renovation and expansion, including its first outdoor exhibit area. But concerns about renewing the lease and the long-term viability of the site prompted a search for a completely new locale. San Francisco’s eastern waterfront, known as the Embarcadero, had some compelling advantages: considerably more space in a central location and easy access to public transit.
However, the new site at Piers 15 and 17, stretching 850 feet into the bay, had its own set of challenges. Like many modern metropolises, San Francisco got its start as a port city, and its old industrial waterfront is slowly being revitalized. The dismantling of the double-decker Embarcadero Freeway in 1991—damaged after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake—reconnected the city to the water and the Embarcadero’s 18 remaining old piers and their bulkhead buildings. The three-mile stretch of maritime infrastructure, built in the 1920s and 1930s and made obsolete by modern container shipping, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States, based on threats from earthquakes and sea-level rise. Pier 17, designated for back-of-house museum functions, needed relatively little work. However, to handle more than one million visitors a year, Pier 15 needed a major seismic upgrade. Of the $220 million bill for the entire adaptive reuse project, $100 million was just for the pier retrofit.
To meet guidelines for historic preservation, the new exterior spaces were designed to blend in with the existing building and waterfront. They appear subdued, but they represent a major change to the original site. Previously, there was no open space between the two piers; instead, there was a large parking lot between the two warehouses and a building at the far end that obscured the view of the water from the Embarcadero. The directive of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), a state regulatory agency charged with providing “maximum feasible public access” to the shoreline, coupled with the enormous expense of refurbishing the pilings, made it an easy decision to remove the parking lot. In consultation with EHDD, the architecture firm responsible for the museum buildings, GLS developed a plan to remove the concrete apron and create a lagoon between the two piers. The open water invites exploration, crisscrossed by two pedestrian bridges and a dock for visiting ships at the far end. “It creates a little back eddy, a node where people can get off of the main circulation route [the Embarcadero] and be in a real place,” says Gary Strang, ASLA, the founder and principal of GLS.
The large majority of the outdoor space is freely accessible, thanks to a convergence of interests. In addition to BCDC’s requirements for public shore access, the Port of San Francisco’s master plan called for a continuous promenade along the waterfront, and the Exploratorium wanted the public to be able to engage with some of its exhibits without purchasing a ticket. (When Oppenheimer first opened the doors to his new museum in 1969, there was no entrance fee.)
From the Embarcadero, a perpendicular walkway between the Pier 17 building and the lagoon takes you straight to the water’s edge for an expansive view that includes Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. The path continues around the back of the museum on Pier 15, and runs along the south side of the museum, where it connects back up to the Embarcadero. There’s also a sizable public plaza right next to the museum entrance. The only outdoor area that is restricted to ticket holders is another small plaza next to the museum restaurant, which is used for events.
The detailing of the space reveals the hand of the designer. The railings are in eight-foot sections, instead of a more typical five feet. “The intention was to emphasize the horizontality of the pier and relate to the large scale of the sky and the Bay. In addition, the posts and pickets are similar so the verticality of the post is not expressed,” Strang says. The railing is side-mounted so that it extends halfway down the thick concrete deck. “It helps to make the slab look a little thinner—otherwise it would look like a giant pancake that the building sits on,” says Wendy Mok, a GLS associate. The concrete paving features a subtle pattern of triangles, with three different finishes (sandblasted, troweled, and broom) that mimic the effect of flickering patterns of light on the water. GLS also designed the public plaza’s seating as simple concrete forms with recessed wood panels.
“Architecturally it had to be very quiet, allowing the historic structures and natural environment to be the bigger show,” says Dan Hodapp, ASLA, a senior waterfront planner for the Port of San Francisco. “I think the design is very successful in how it fits the historic character and yet is modern.”
While it was in between homes, the Exploratorium staff had its first experience with outdoor exhibits, creating 20 of them for the Outdoor Exploratorium at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center in 2009. “It’s very difficult to work in outdoor settings, and specifically urban settings,” says Shawn Lani, the Exploratorium’s director of the Studio for Public Spaces, which does all of the museum’s outdoor exhibits. “We learned if we don’t have the professions of architecture and landscape architecture represented on our team to address scale, traffic flow, and permits, we cannot do this work.”
GLS worked closely with the Exploratorium staff on the railing design to confirm that it would provide many options for attaching exhibits. Before the powder-coated steel railings were produced, the Exploratorium staff built a full-scale mock-up out of wood to see how they would work. The cap angle of the railing is set at a slight 107-degree angle to make it comfortable for leaning and has also been quite successful in discouraging seagulls from perching on the railings.
The railings are also bolted together in sections so they can be removed. For instance, Exploratorium staff replaced several sections on the south side with an interactive display called Bay Windows: five transparent disks that contain sediment from various parts of the bay. Visitors can see how different the composition of the bay floor is, and rotate the disks to mimic wave forces. “We wanted to see how we could leverage the architecture to create a learning environment,” Lani says. “By integrating the exhibits into the architecture, they are not only more functional but more pleasing—they’re more conducive to getting people to look out at the bay, instead of separating them from the experience.”
The old pilings beneath the parking lot, which were left in place to support potential future expansion, have also proved to be an economical way to mount exhibits. They include Color of Water, a row of color chips suspended between pilings close to the water, which prompt the user to find the closest match to the water below them. And one of the museum’s newest exhibits, Pier Piling Pivot, is a piling that visitors can raise out of the water for 30 seconds to see the different creatures and plants that have colonized it.
There are about 20 outdoor exhibits currently on display, but the site could easily accommodate many more. “The site is so big that even a relatively large piece doesn’t have as much presence as it does indoors,” says the Exploratorium’s Rockwell, who anticipates that the number of outdoor exhibits will increase gradually over the next five years.
There is a design for a second phase—albeit with an unspecified implementation date—that includes a floating dock at the edge of the lagoon. Phase two also calls for a planter filled with salt-tolerant grasses to replace a long section of railing, a reminder of the marshlands that used to occupy the area. “We’d like to introduce more greenery, provide more usable square footage to serve as a destination along the promenade, and allow the public to get closer to the surface of the bay,” Strang says.
Perhaps most notably, the outdoor spaces have helped the Exploratorium expand into an entirely new direction. “Using the canvas that we have here, we can think about extending the museum experience to public spaces in the urban environment and serving a more complex social function,” Rockwell says.
Soon after its move to the new location in 2013, the Exploratorium launched the Studio for Public Spaces, which partners with city agencies and community groups to create public installations. These outdoor installations incorporate educational elements, but are more broadly focused on creating a sense of place. The largest of these projects to date has been Sound Commons at the city’s UN Plaza, the goal of which is to build community in an area known for crime and drug use. The sound-making devices, which were installed last year and will continue in place through 2018, include immense “echo tubes” and a giant curtain of chimes. For this and its other installations, the Studio for Public Spaces used the public plaza next to the museum as a prototyping area. The process is particularly useful as a gauge for how the general public, compared to paying visitors, will interact with the installations, according to Lani. “This scale is not our normal bailiwick,” he says. “We’re chasing the notion of being less like a museum and engaging the public in ways that we haven’t even imagined yet.”
Lydia Lee is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes frequently about urban design and architecture.
Client/Owner The Exploratorium/Port of San Francisco. Landscape Architecture GLS Landscape | Architecture, San Francisco. Architecture (Building Structure Only) EHDD Architecture, San Francisco. Historic Architecture Page & Turnbull, San Francisco. Civil Engineering Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, San Francisco. Structural Engineering Rutherford + Chekene, San Francisco. Electrical Engineering Cammisa + Wipf Consulting Engineers, San Francisco. Mechanical/Plumbing Engineering Rumsey Engineers, Oakland, California. General Contractor Nibbi Brothers General Contractors, San Francisco. Lighting Design David Nelson & Associates, Littleton, Colorado. Acoustical Consulting Charles M. Salter Associates, San Francisco. IT/AV Consulting TELADATA, Fremont, California.