Exploratorium Reborn: Inside San Francisco’s New Shrine To Innovation

Exploratorium Reborn: Inside San Francisco’s New Shrine To Innovation

When San Francisco’s Exploratorium began to outgrow its 9200sqm campus at the Palace of Fine Arts — where it had been since its founding in 1969 — it looked for a new home, eventually settling on the city’s Embarcadero. With its relocation, the Exploratorium took the opportunity to design a world-class science and technology institution with a goal of becoming the world’s largest net-zero energy museum.

Three months after it shuttered its old doors, and nearly a decade of planning later, the Exploratorium is set to re-open on Pier 15 next week.

The new Exploratorium officially opens on April 17, but we got a sneak preview of its new space and exhibits. This is what a 21st-century museum looks like: a structure every bit as evolved as its contents.

At opening, a quarter of the 600 exhibits will be brand new. Notably, some of these additions highlight the Exploratorium’s investment in green technologies, putting on display otherwise quiet infrastructure. The floors, for example, play an integral part of a unique HVAC system. Its embedded pipes circulate 280,000 litres of bay water each hour to heat and cool the building. The roof, meanwhile, holds the distinction of being the city’s second largest solar roof — first, if you ignore utility companies.

There’s obviously so much to explore, but here are some of our favourite architectural touches from San Francisco’s newest informational mecca.

The New Digs

The Exploratorium’s new home on Pier 15 will more than triple its real estate with 330,000 square feet. To ensure the museum won’t outgrow its space, Pier 17 (not pictured) will provide another 2.5 acres for future expansion. Dennis Bartels, director of the Exploratorium, said the previous location in the Marina district was “a bit dark, a bit dusty and a little isolated,” in stark contrast to the Embarcadero, which he called “the front porch of San Francisco.”

A Light Show Celebration

To commemorate the Exploratorium’s opening, Emergence, a video installation by Obscura Digital, will display on Pier 15’s facade the evenings of April 17 and 18. Combine that with the Bay Bridge LEDs, and the Embarcadero has some fun light shows ahead. Rendering: Obscura Digital

Up On the (Solar) Roof

The high-efficiency SunPower photovoltaics, estimated to cost $US1 million after state and federal grants, is expected to generate enough energy to sustain the museum’s operations, drawing from the grid when necessary during the evenings and winter months, and giving back to the city during long summer and fall days. Over the course of the year, this is said to equal out to net-zero emissions, and the museum expects the savings to pay for the system within a decade. A display in the bulkhead lobby will show visitors the roof’s real-time performance.

Keeping Cool, Keeping Warm

For temperature control, the Bay Water Heating and Cooling System takes advantage of the bay, which fluctuates between 13C and 18C seasonally, using it as a heat source and sink. See the lines at the bottom of the frame? They help the windows reflect light and keep the interior cool.

Clean Water

The Bay Water Heating and Cooling System filters water in three stages to remove sea life and bacteria before pumping it through titanium heat exchangers and into 25 miles of tubing that runs through the concrete floors.

Workshop Stop

When Frank Oppenheimer created the Exploratorium, he wanted the workshop to be prominently on display. “He wanted you to smell the oil,” said Ron Hipschman, one of the museum’s science educators. “The ghost of Frank is always with us.”

Rehab and Reno

Much renovation was needed to make Piers 15 and 17 habitable, including the repair of 4,000 dilapidated underwater pilings that serve as the buildings’ foundation.

Smaller Spaces, More Control

Unlike the Palace of Fine Arts’ cavernous interior, the new location breaks up the space into indoor galleries (pictured: Central Gallery). Instead of inefficiently heating or cooling an entire building, the museum can now fine tune the temperature for these galleries.

Fog Town, USA

San Francisco is notorious for its fog. Since this part of town isn’t usually as hard hit, the Exploratorium is creating its own with the installation Fog Bridge by artist-in-residence Fujiko Nakaya. Nakaya, whose fog sculpture was a hit at the Osaka Expo in 1970, collaborated with a cloud physicist to create a chemical-free fog for this exhibit.

Life of Pi

Fun fact: Pi Day was established in 1988 at the Exploratorium. This benchmark plays homage to the annual celebration on March 14.

Touch and Go

One of the Exploratorium’s most popular exhibits, the Tactile Dome won’t open until the summer. The dome creates a pitch black environment that requires visitors to navigate darkness (and passages lined with strange textures) relying solely on their sense of touch.

Pictures: Alice Truong

Alice Truong is a freelance writer and photographer in San Francisco.