The Exploratorium, an interactive science museum founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer, exemplifies the dual role of San Francisco as a magnet for tourists and a hub of fresh thinking. It recently outgrew its first home in the Palace of Fine Arts and relocated to Pier 15, just north of the city’s Ferry Building. Its new premises are three times larger than before, and they are a model of conservation, adaptive re-use, and sustainability. San Francisco architecture firm EHDD—which worked with the Exploratorium on an earlier, unrealized expansion project—spent six years on a seismic upgrade and restoration of the historic pier building’s concrete shell, creating new display areas inside and on the surrounding apron.
Pier 15 was built in 1931, when San Francisco was still a busy port, and faded signs remind visitors of its wartime role as an embarkation point for U.S. troops shipping out to the Pacific. Port facilities are now concentrated in Oakland, and San Francisco is reclaiming its waterfront for commercial and recreational purposes.
EHDD’s first move was to drive massive piles to stabilize the base of the pier. That allowed the firm to keep the existing superstructure and girders, poured concrete slabs, and steel sash windows. EHDD worked with restoration experts Page & Turnbull and the State Preservation Board to conserve the original fabric. Artisans made unobtrusive repairs to damaged walls. The single-glazed clerestories and roll-up steel doors were retained, and the steel-framed concrete panels were left exposed. “We wanted to freeze the building in time, while making subtle changes to give it a new role,” said Marc L’Italien, EHDD’s principal in charge.
Though the exterior looks much as it did in its prime, its performance is radically improved. To achieve a LEED Gold rating, the building uses bay water for radiant heating and cooling. The expansive roof is covered with a 1.3-megawatt array of solar panels—enough to power more than a thousand homes. Ducts pull in fresh air, and 16 percent of rainfall is stored in cisterns atop the piles. Triple-element glass is used in the new portal and the building at the end of the pier, as well as the openings where the original doors have been rolled up to pull in light and views.
David Livingston; Bruce Damonte
Landscape architect Gary Strang collaborated with EHDD to turn 1.5 acres of outdoor space into a public promenade, and another half acre into outdoor display space. Bridges, guardrails, benches, and light standards have a timeless simplicity that complements the industrial aesthetic of the pier. Boundaries between public and museum space as well as between inside and outside are blurred. As visitors walk to the end of the pier they leave the city behind and engage the marine environment of the bay.
Oppenheimer was a brilliant teacher who, denied the opportunity to conduct advanced research during the hysteria of the McCarthy years, determined to enlarge public understanding of science with creative exhibits. The ecology of the bay and what it says about climate change have become an integral part of the institution’s program. Within the pier, EHDD inserted mezzanine galleries and plywood enclosures that can accommodate room-sized installations, as well as classrooms, administrative areas, and a workshop, where exhibits are repaired in full public view. A central walkway leads visitors to the far end, where a steel wall, laser-cut with magnified images of plankton, conceals a link to the Fisher Bay Observatory. This two-story steel-framed block contains a first-floor restaurant, and an upstairs events-exhibit space with a soffit of LED-backlit fabric panels. Windows have fritted lines at the top and bottom to reduce heat gain while framing panoramic views of the water and Telegraph Hill.