San Francisco


The California Academy of Sciences needed a temporary home to accommodate research, administrative, and public spaces while its old facility, in Golden Gate Park, was being replaced with a new design by Renzo Piano. The temporary space needed to endure five years of heavy public use and house exhibit and teaching spaces, a café, a retail store, a research library, laboratories, storage facilities, offices, and the large collection of the Steinhart Aquarium.

The resulting design by Melander Architects emphasizes economy, reuse, and efficiency. The 217,000-square-foot, six-story industrial building allows for a clear, stacked separation of public and private uses. The first floor features the aquarium, while the second floor contains astrobiology exhibits and an interactive educational center. Administrative uses occupy the third floor, which acts as a buffer between the public floors and the collections, which are housed on the fourth through sixth floors.

Recycling numerous elements from the old facility kept costs down. Older, smaller aquarium tanks were repurposed in the temporary exhibits, concealed within a rack system comprised of plywood, Plexiglas, and infill panels. The existing retail store was reassembled in a new configuration reusing theatrical lighting. Similarly, several of the new components will also be reused in the new permanent facility. The new compact storage systems will hold many collections and the new off-the-shelf exhibit tanks will become back-of-house tanks.

The design reflects the building’s industrial origins, while being conceived as a “box of wonders” that emphasizes the exhibits while leaving the “box” untreated. The main aquarium was rendered as a curvilinear flowing form, contrasting with the building’s rectilinear nature. Materials were left in their rawest form, with concrete exposed and floor plates left open. Inexpensive yet durable materials include perforated birch and plastic laminate.

The main aquarium also has a unique transitional role. Beyond housing temporary exhibits, the 20,000-gallon, 18-foot-deep main aquarium is serving as a prototype for the new coral reef exhibit planned for the new facility. This temporary exhibit gives biologists the opportunity to develop successful husbandry techniques, incorporate the latest technology, and enlarge the aquarium's collection for the new facilities.


California Academy of Sciences

Melander Architects, Inc.
212 Sutter Street, Sixth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94108       
415 981 7087
415 981 7088

Principal Architect: Eric S. Robinson

Project Manager: Arthur Chen

Job Captain: Aaron Goldman

Interior Designer
Designer: Jason Etheridge

Designer: Carl Baker

Mazzetti & Associates 
530 Bush Street, Suite 300
San Francisco,  CA 94108


GFDS Engineers
543 Howard Street, First Floor
San Francisco, CA 94105-3021

Exhibit Designer:
Thinc Design, Inc.
435 Hudson St., 8th Floor
New York, NY  10014


General contractor 
Webcor Interior Construction Group    
207 King Street, Suite 300
San Francisco, CA 94107

Richard Barnes
(973) 655-0626




Exterior cladding

Poured in place concrete


Aluminum: Viracon

Interior finishes

Acoustical ceilings: Ventwood

Paneling: Homasote wall panels

Special surfacing: Dur-A-Flex Inc. @ aquarium floors

Floor and wall tile: Dal-Tile Corp.