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'Greenest' Museum To Open In San Francisco

A building heralded as the greenest museum in the world opens Saturday in San Francisco. The California Academy of Sciences features a living green roof with native plants, insulation made from recycled blue jeans and a large canopy of solar energy panels.

Italian architect Renzo Piano tucked the building into the hills of Golden Gate Park — in both form and function, the museum fits into the natural world surrounding it.

Teeming With Life

The California Academy of Sciences is not your typical museum experience, says Chris Andrews, who runs the academy's public programs. There are no dark halls or long corridors here; its walls are made almost entirely of glass, and it's possible to see from one side of the building to the other from almost any point on the museum's first floor. Even the aquariums in the coral reef exhibition on the lower level are illuminated by sunlight.

"When natural sunlight hits an exhibit of living animals, it brings a tank alive in the way nothing else can," Andrews says.

The building is teeming with life, from the aquarium exhibits below to the green roof above. Standing on the only square of the living roof that isn't covered with plants, Andrews says the sloped design plays off the seven hills of San Francisco.

When Golden Gate Park was developed some 125 years ago, the city covered sand dunes with plants not native to San Francisco. Ironically, the academy's roof is the one spot in the park that has 100 percent native plants; it is already becoming a research center for local universities.

In addition to being an educational research site, the living roof also helps moderate the temperature of the museum. The plant life keeps it about 10 degrees cooler inside than a traditional tar roof. Skylights open and shut to let warm or cool air in and out of the building.

The academy is working to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certificate — it is anticipated that the building will become the world's largest public space to receive the highest LEED rating.

'Coming To Wonder About Nature'

Italian architect Piano says he grew up loving science. But Piano didn't like the way natural history museums separated the research from the exhibitions — with scientists toiling away in the basement, and visitors wandering through mysterious dark halls.

The California Academy of Sciences has always served three functions, Piano says — display, education and research. The spirit of the new building, he explains, "is to announce and enforce this complexity of function."

Piano sees the academy's green roof as one of the many places in the building where his design brings scientists together with the public.

"We have 20 million species, and we have scientists still working, exploring the Earth, and at the same time you have young people, children, curious people coming to wonder about nature," Piano says.

A More Modern Museum

Although the building is new, the California Academy of Sciences goes back to 1853; it has been located in Golden Gate Park for more than 100 years. When the academy's building was damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, Executive Director Greg Farrington says, his institution had the rare opportunity to get rid of its old-fashioned exhibitions.

"If you go to some very traditional museums, you see what I call the 'multimedia of 1916,' known as the 'diorama,' " Farrington says. "Dioramas everywhere. But that was how those institutions grew up. This institution has had the chance to make itself totally modern all at once."

Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, says most of the country's natural history museums were built more than a century ago. He says these museums want to find ways to break free from their dark, intimidating halls; like the California Academy of Sciences, they seek to draw the public in and help them understand their interconnection with the natural world.

Standing before a re-created Pacific Ocean tide pool at the academy, Chris Andrews says this museum — with its environmentally green building and its living creatures — is meant to encourage people to take care of the Earth.

A visit to the museum is not a "strictly didactic learning experience," he says, it's "a more emotional experience."

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Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and