California Academy of Sciences

If you liked the original aquarium and natural history museum in Golden Gate Park, you'll love the new one.

Visitors view the aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco

The academy's living reef display is the biggest in the nation.

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"I call it the Kingdom of Wow—as in, 'Wow!' " says Gregory Farrington, executive director of the California Academy of Sciences, which has just reopened in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park after a three-year, $488 million renovation. 

Inside stands a lush four-story rain forest—a verdant grove of mahogany, water chestnut, and other tropical trees. Visitors stroll from the dark understory into the bright canopy, where 600 insects and birds, from silver-spot butterflies to scarlet macaws, swoop and flit. Equally eye-opening is an acrylic tunnel that plunges into a 100,000-gallon aquarium teeming with Amazon River turtles and fish.

Up above, millions of plants grow across the museum's 2.5-acre roof. And the beloved swamp, with its alligators and snapping turtles, is back at the Steinhart Aquarium—only now it's two stories deep and offers an underwater view.

Dreamed up by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano, the bold 410,000-square-foot building embodies the institution's concern for the natural world with airy exhibit halls and glass walls that look onto greenery and sunshine. "It's a magic world of light," Farrington says.

THE LIVING ROOF

Architect Piano calls the living roof a "flying carpet" of parkland with the museum slid in below. "I'm amazed at how many people feel captivated by it," says botany curator Frank Almeda, standing on its public observation deck. The roof 's seven jaunty peaks evoke the hills of San Francisco and Rome. "Look—butterflies have found the roof," Almeda says, watching a fluttering scrap of color alight on a blossom. Plants of California's coast—beach strawberries, sea pinks, poppies, and lupines—make the garden the largest native species enclave in San Francisco. The garden thrives without irrigation and insulates the galleries below. "It shows we really can change the way we live in ways that reduce our impact on the planet," Almeda says.

MORRISON PLANETARIUM

Cutting-edge digital technology enables the museum's new star dome to show heavenly bodies from any point in the cosmos. "We're starting out giving a grand tour of the scale of the universe with an eye to how Earth fits in," says planetarium director Ryan Wyatt.

Inside the 90-foot dome, a projector flashes images onto a 75-foot-wide tilted and curved screen, thrilling viewers with the sense of floating in space or soaring past a moon of Saturn. "It puts you inside the science," Wyatt says. "It really transports you." And outer space is only part of the picture. "The very nature of planetariums has changed dramatically in the last decade," he says. Simulations can even fly visitors through a DNA molecule or reveal Earth's mosaic of plants and animals shifting over time with global warming.

THE CORAL REEF

The museum's living reef display—in a 212,000-gallon tank that's 25 feet deep and holds 2,000 coral colonies—is the biggest in the nation and the deepest in the world. The growing coral carpet is sprinkled with 3,000 fish in a dazzling confetti of blues, golds, oranges, and magentas. The display is modeled on reefs in the Philippines. Soft, fleshy corals resemble vibrant flowers or big mushrooms, while their hard, reef-building cousins, brain and staghorn corals, match their descriptive names. "You can watch the thousands of fish and really bathe in coral reefs' majesty and diversity," says Steinhart Aquarium curator Bart Shepherd.

Farrington concurs. "This institution is about wonder," he says. "It's about seeing and experiencing the amazing diversity of life-forms. And it's about reverence for life on this planet."

Photography by Anthony Gordon/courtesy California Academy of Sciences

This article was first published in July 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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