Uncharted Territory

Uncharted Territory

The National Aquarium Institute (NAI), operator of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, has hired Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects and IMPACTS Research and Development, a “predictive intelligence” consultant, to undertake its “BLUEprint” project, a strategic plan to update the aquarium model for the 21st century.

“Like many contemporary visitor-serving organizations, aquaria face a critical turning point with regard to their future roles and relevance,” said Gang in a statement. “Once considered solely as entertainment venues driving their local economies, aquaria today have an obligation to lead on critical ocean and water quality issues, borne of the association of their live exhibits with ocean wilderness.”

The BLUEprint process has four phases, the first of which is improving the visitor experience in downtown Baltimore. NAI’s waterfront facility includes a 1981 building on Inner Harbor Pier 3 by Cambridge Seven Associates, a 1990 Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 by Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O’Hatnick of Baltimore, and a 2005 addition to the 1981 building that contains the aquarium’s Animal Planet Australia exhibit, by Chermayeff, Sollogub & Poole. Gang was asked to recommend ways to weave together these different components so they seem more unified and tell a more powerful story about aquatic conservation.

Part of the commission is addressing circulation bottlenecks and way-finding issues, and introducing interactive exhibits celebrating the Chesapeake Bay and mid-Atlantic seashores. Some early recommendations involve changes on and around the piers that hold the aquarium buildings. Ideas now in the concept stage include creation of a “perched wetland” in the inlet between Piers 3 and 4 to depict habitats of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and what a thriving urban waterfront might be; the use of multiple entrances rather than one main entrance; and construction of an underwater glass tube that would link Piers 3 and 4 and give visitors a chance to learn about water conditions in the Inner Harbor from a different perspective.

Phase two involves recommending a future presence for the aquarium in Washington D. C. In 2003, NAI assumed operations of the smaller National Aquarium in Washington, which was located for many years in the basement of the U. S. Department of Commerce. In September 2013, when the Washington facility was closed due to renovations planned for that building, NAI officials pledged to reestablish a presence in Washington in the future. Studio Gang and IMPACTS have been asked to recommend what form that presence might take.


According to NAI, two ideas have emerged. One is for the aquarium to explore “potential collaborations” with the Smithsonian Institution. The second is to create an “ocean embassy” that would bring together ocean advocates, aquarium leaders, and policymakers “to perform for the ocean what embassies do for nations,” such as debating issues, negotiating disputes, and representing the interests of their constituents. No site has been identified for such an embassy.

Phase three involves redefining NAI’s mission and looking at the future of aquaria as a building type. Since opening in 1981, NAI has evolved from an aquarium with a “nascent” conservation message to a conservation organization that operates an aquarium. Through BLUEprint, the institute wants to determine how to strengthen its role as a conservation organization and change the way people view and care for the world’s oceans.

Phase four involves determining the future of NAI’s eight Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and possible alternative uses for the Marine Mammal Pavilion. The design team is looking at the question of whether NAI should continue to exhibit dolphins, as it has since it opened. A debate on the ethical implications of holding dolphins and other cetaceans in captivity has been raging within the zoo and aquarium industry for years, but it recently reached a wider audience with documentaries that cast a negative light on the hunting and captivity of marine mammals, including Blackfish and The Cove.

Concerned that the dolphins likely would not survive if released into the wild, aquarium officials asked their consultants to explore ways to house and care for them if they are no longer on exhibit. One option under study is moving the dolphins to an ocean-side sanctuary, a fenced in and well monitored area where the dolphins could stay together and would have more room to swim, without being in the wild. Gang’s office has been exploring design options for such a sanctuary.

Possible recommendations for recycling the marine mammal pavilion, if the dolphins are no longer exhibited there, include using it to house the aquarium’s animal care center and rescue facilities, which are in other locations, and providing public access to areas that are now back-of-the-house zones, such as the food preparation area and water quality testing lab.

Gang has never designed an aquarium before. Because of the complexity of aquariums as a building type, clients tend to hire architects who specialize in designing them. For this project, however, aquarium board members wanted fresh, conceptual thinking from architects who could take an objective look and chart a course for the future. National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli said he had previously worked with IMPACTS to study cultural trends. For the BLUEprint work, he said, IMPACTS founder Scott Corwon recommended that the aquarium hire Studio Gang, and it did.