Swim with the Fishes

Swim with the Fishes

The Science Center nestles into the ground just a few feet from the ocean.
Courtesy Gould Evans / NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service realized 15 years ago that its beloved campus in La Jolla would soon be fish food. Coastal erosion was undermining the building’s foundation. NOAA selected Kansas City-based Gould Evans (along with local partner Delawie) to design a new facility, which secured $74 million in federal stimulus money for its “shovel-ready” status. Those funds kick-started construction on the project, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), which recently opened just up the hill from NOAA’s previous headquarters.

The new facility hasn’t disappointed the NOAA team, which was hoping to recreate the charms of its old home, where breezeways and central courtyards facilitated an open and collaborative research culture. The building’s orientation to the coast and tiered massing open beautiful views and create a variety of outdoor collaborative spaces, all centering around a large courtyard on the building’s second level.

Gould Evans multiplied outdoor spaces by shifting the orientation of each of the building’s floors, opening unique gathering places on each floor. The heat island effect created by the additional roof space is offset with lush, green roof landscaping beautifully arranged with native San Diego and coastal chaparral plants like Shaw Agave and Deer Grass. The facility’s open spaces frame the topography of La Jolla Canyon, a deep cut in the ocean floor just off the coast that makes La Jolla the ideal location for fishery science. The site also required a lot of excavation to sink two of the building’s five-stories below grade, maintaining view corridors and matching the low-rise context of the area.

A green roof doubles as a courtyard.

The building is clad with Colton Concrete (mixed locally to match the buildings in the surrounding UCSD campus community) and terracotta louvers that keep the interior spaces cool and provide a durable presence on the exterior.

Before anyone adds the SWFSC to San Diego’s pantheon of architectural attractions—headlined by the Salk Institute, located just a few clicks north up the coast—the equally abundant presence of stucco and the fact that the building’s best aspects, like its courtyard, are hard to see from the street, leave the building several leagues below its famous neighbor.

What makes the building most fascinating is the work of the human beings inside. SWFSC studies mammals and fish of every size, shape, and color all over the world. A sample of the work happening on its new campus: California Cetacean and ecosystem assessment surveys, development and testing of Autonomous Underwater Vehicle and Remotely Operated Vehicles, species breeding for population augmentation, and large animal necropsy.

The facility’s visible three stories hide its most impressive structure: a 528,000-gallon water tank, engineered to heat and cool water between 25 and two degrees Celsius. No other tank of that size can be controlled to such a wide temperature spectrum. The building housing the tank stands 72 feet tall by 102 feet wide and 62 feet deep, and the tank includes nine observation ports on two decks.

For the foreseeable future, curious visitors have about as much chance of gaining access to the SWFSC as they have of getting an invitation to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory—Golden Tickets are only allowed for scientists who work on campus, and NOAA has yet to develop programs for bringing the public inside. All science-minded Californians should hope the SWFSC’s door is opened to a wider audience as soon as possible.