Italian architect Renzo Piano encircled the largely glass building with a canopy of solar panels and covered its 2.5-acre roof with California wildflowers.
The museum, which opened this fall, is insulated with denim that is the equivalent of 216,000 pairs of jeans — the use of which seems particularly fitting because denim was pioneered in San Francisco by Levi Strauss & Co. during the mid-1800s Gold Rush. It was during this era of discovery that the academy got its start as a research institute and museum dedicated to the pursuit of understanding nature.
But that’s not where the museum’s denim story ends in Piano’s light-filled building, where an aquarium, planetarium, natural history exhibits and four-story-tall rain forest are under one roof and populated with wildlife. (The building replaces an outdated structure damaged in a 1989 earthquake.)
A foundation created by Levi Strauss descendant and former company president Walter Haas and his wife, Evelyn, has underwritten the cost of the aquarium’s Northern California Coast exhibit. A 100,000-gallon tank features small sharks, abalone, sea urchins and other marine life from the nearby Pacific Coast that can be spotted on two levels through panoramic windows and under bridges.
Next door, the African Hall was funded by another former Levi’s president and academy trustee, Thomas Tusher and his wife, Pauline. It’s one of the few exhibits held over from the previous museum, with dioramas of gorillas, zebras, leopards and other wildlife posed in their natural settings. The static displays lead to a glassed-in cliff dwelling and watering hole of lively South African penguins.
With a focus on marine research, San Francisco’s other denim family, the Fishers, who started Gap Inc., have underwritten the academy’s new Fisher Family Center for Marine Science.
Everywhere a visitor looks, there’s a story told about conservation and sustainable living practices. There are 38,000 birds, fish and other wildlife, including a couple of alligators, one a rare albino.
Piano arranged the museum around a glass piazza with a soaring dome and surrounding views of the park. Under another sun-filled dome are four distinct rain forests from Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and the Amazon, each occupying a floor and traversed by a circular ramp that provides an intimate view of plants and wildlife, like an eye-to-eye view with a tiny red and blue Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. After leaving the rain forest, museum staffers examine the clothing of visitors to remove any hitchhiking butterflies.
But it is Piano’s living roof of 1.7 million plants and wildflowers native to California that is the building’s signature feature. Officials said the rooftop keeps the interior of the structure an average of 10 degrees cooler than a conventional roof and the vegetation turns carbon dioxide into oxygen, keeps rainwater from running off into storm drains and cuts down energy needs.
In comments at the museum last fall, Piano said opening the rooftop to visitors was important. “I am saying [the roof is] part of the exhibit,” said Piano, whose other recent projects have included The New York Times’ Manhattan tower and the modern wing of the Chicago Institute of Art. “You are standing in the middle of nature….It’s a great experience.”