In 2003, the California Academy of Sciences closed its doors in Golden Gate Park
to prepare for building a new, $370-million, museum and aquarium on the same
site. While the construction was being completed, the Academy wanted to display
its living collection in a warehouse in downtown San Francisco. Originally dubbed
the “fish hotel,” the temporary aquarium developed into a unique, exciting, and
versatile facility in its own right. In addition to keeping the Steinhart’s loyal
following connected to the institution, it served as a platform for experimenting
with new concepts, exhibits, and modes of public interaction that were eventually
transferred to the new Steinhart.
Thinc designed the transitional aquarium to be inside-out: animal husbandry areas
that are traditionally confined to back of house were made visible to the public,
maximizing the potential for contact and informal conversation between staff and
the visitors. Constructed mainly of inexpensive materials and recycled elements
from the old Steinhart, the transitional facility also featured flexible systems that
allowed exhibits and interpretative materials to be changed easily.
One of the exhibits designed to test concepts for the new Steinhart was a
20,000-gallon experimental coral reef tank. This 18-foot-deep tank was used to
research coral husbandry, lighting, and water circulation for the 230,000-gallon
living coral exhibit that opened in Golden Gate Park. Another was a wraparound
touch tank that provided docents with the flexibility to show tide pool animals
and interact with the public in multiple ways. And a penguin exhibit, housed in a
9,000-gallon fiberglass tank, was built out of moveable panels and platforms that
allowed the staff to experiment with different configurations to determine, for
instance, whether the birds did better with one or two nesting clusters.