When it opened in 1969, the New England Aquarium was recognized throughout the world for creating the prototype of the modern aquarium. Originally planned for projected attendance levels of 600,000 per year, it became an international tourist attraction with visitation of more than twice that amount.
Now looking to its thirtieth anniversary, the New England Aquarium has recently undertaken a major program to renew and expand both its mission and its facilities to distinguish itself once again in a leadership role for the next century. Where the original mission had been to initiate the public into the wonders of underwater creatures, with a building whose dark, windowless interior was designed to transport visitors away from all that was familiar and everyday, the new mission goes even further to create awareness of the interrelationship of the human world and the world of water. The character of the existing building, while well suited to the former mission, was at odds with the new vision for the institution. The work of renovating and expanding the original facility clearly needed more than new life support systems, space for larger tanks and exciting new exhibits. It also required a complete transformation of the character of the building.
Extending the old building on two sides, Schwartz/Silvers design turns the overall effect of the aquarium from an inward looking, sober, concrete box into a light-filled complex of exuberant forms reaching out to the city on the west side - with a new entrance wing - and out to the ocean on the east - with a new exhibit wing.
The site, right on the Boston harbor, in coastal waters between the city and the Atlantic, while almost irrelevant to the raison detre of the original aquarium, is clearly the defining characteristic of the new one. The unusual style of the building design, developed by Schwartz/Silver in collaboration with the institution over a course of dialogues, has been referred to as coastal architecture by Aquarium president, Jerry Schubel, and contrasts dramatically with the concrete high rise towers and brick wharf buildings that characterize Bostons downtown. As well as being true to the Aquariums new identity, the design won the approval of all fourteen different municipal, state and Federal authorities that regulate construction adjacent to the Boston harbor.
The additions are designed to visually connect the human world to the world of water - with views to the city on one side, and with views of the seashore and the ocean beyond on the other. The skin of the building, with its radially ground steel shingles reflecting sea and sky, works to eliminate the boundary between interior and exterior as it passes through the glass curtainwall and large, welcoming openings.
The institution now promises to be more than yet another aquarium, competing with ever larger tanks in dozens of similar facilities around the world. It will be a unique identity building for Boston, allowing visitors to appreciate both the typical and the extraordinary aspects of its location, and enhancing the city as a whole.
photos (c) Matt Wargo Photography