Picture a children’s museum and you likely envision a frenzied, chaotic environment, with most of the activities taking place somewhere around the level of your kneecaps. At the new Thinkery in Austin, however, children and adults can participate in cool science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM in pedagogical lingo) experiences together. Designed by Santa Monica, California’s Koning Eizenberg Architecture with local architect of record STG Design, the Thinkery opened in Austin in December 2013 as a dynamic new component of Austin’s thriving tech and creative scenes.
Relocated from downtown to the new urbanist Mueller development, the Thinkery anchors a town square and borders a large park, creating a sophisticated edge to the relatively bucolic context. For Thinkery executive director Mike Nellis, the move embodies a re-imagining of the museum’s mission. “Downtown Austin had grown up around our previous building, making accessibility and parking an issue. We were unable to serve a large swath of the community as a result,” he said. The new location boasts plenty of parking and its location off the central I-35 corridor is easily accessible and closer to the geographic center of the city, which is expanding northward.
The Thinkery’s pared-down but cheerful design shies away from traditional Texas vernacular or any pastiche of child friendly clichés. A big, red, metal box, it is visible in glimpses along the approach from the main road. According to the architect, the simplicity was both a budgetary and aesthetic decision. “The building is an armature for the exhibits,” said Julie Eizenberg. “It is designed to allow programming to evolve easily and to set up a sequence of spaces where things happen.” As such, detailing is mostly functional, serving to provide shade from the hot Texas sun, wayfinding and navigation, or logistics for staging daily school groups of 500. The building itself gives kids plenty of information about the world around them. Exposed mechanical systems, pipes, and conduit suggest their own kind of learning environment. Eizenberg said this was a deliberate move. “The building is a bit rougher around the edges, which provides all kinds of texture and information about the world and how things work. It allows the environment to become a teacher.”
To keep the often-frenetic activities moving smoothly, the program encourages vertical circulation by placing the popular water exhibit—bearing the warning “you will get wet”—upstairs. From there, a wooden bridge with views to the courtyard’s elaborate playscape heralds a softer, gentler environment for very small children located at the opposite end of the building. A comfortable storytime nook with a large picture window reinforces connections to nature. In fact, the environment is a recurring theme throughout the exhibits, which reinforce sustainability and stewardship (as well as nutrition and exercise), alongside the scientific and artsy activities. Eizenberg said the architects applied a common sense approach to sustainability—water conservation, exterior shading and siting, healthy materials, and high R-values—rather than investments in extravagant systems. The Thinkery is on track for LEED Silver certification.
The building fronts a large park and lake, as well as the nearby Browning Hangar, an outdoor stage that hosts a weekly farmers market and other community events. The town center remains a work in progress, but in the future families from all over the city will easily be able to spend a day in this pedestrian friendly context. Nellis said that average visitor duration at the museum has increased from an hour-and-a-half to nearly four hours, which means one fundamental goal of the building has been achieved. The longer you stay, the more you learn, after all. Another goal—appealing to adults—is also in progress: One evening a month the museum hosts Thinkery 21, where just the grownups get to have a run at the exhibits. How’s that for keeping it weird?