Miami’s architectural bar has risen considerably in the past 10 years and expectations run high, especially when considering a new project by someone as accomplished as Nicholas Grimshaw, the 77-year-old British architect who designed the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. Grimshaw is by nature a structural innovator, emerging from a line of sustainable design thinking that links the work of modernists Richard Rogers, who designed Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and Norman Foster, designer of the exoskeletal Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, to the tensile structures of Frei Otto’s 1972 Munich Olympic Arena and Buckminister Fuller’s domes. Their belief was that technology, if properly channeled, can solve humankind’s most pressing problems.
The 250,000-square-foot Frost moves in several different directions at the same time, facing Miami’s Main Street (Biscayne Boulevard) on one side, while also addressing the traffic on I-395 (MacArthur Causeway) and the elevated tracks of the Metromover to the north; Museum Park to the south; PAMM museum and the Port of Miami to the east. It’s really four separate structures connected by open-air decks and suspended passageways. There’s the great sphere that houses the planetarium; the elliptical “Living Core” with the main aquarium and multi-level wildlife exhibitions; and two other blocks, the North and West Wings, that contain additional exhibition spaces as well as administrative offices.
The best of Grimshaw’s work has been a celebration of movement and modern mobility. His projects include the sleek tubular extrusions of Waterloo Railway Station in London (1993); high-tech expansions for airports in London, Zurich, and Moscow; a bus station in Bilbao, Spain (1999); an undulating high-wire bridge in Amsterdam (2001); and the Southern Cross Station in Melbourne (2005). Whether it’s for a transportation hub, research center or museum, Grimshaw brings a poetic understanding of structure (both his father and grandfather were engineers), and a sense of optimism and aspiration spelled out in minimal but expressive forms. Skeletons made of six-sided, hex-tri-hex steel cells are wrapped in state-of-the-art hybrid materials to create membranes shaped like giant glow-worms as incorporated into Britain’s National Space Museum in Leicester and the dome-like “biomes” of the Eden Project (Cornwall, England, 2001), perhaps his most futuristic and well-known project.
Grimshaw’s building for the Frost Museum of Science was designed to be a living, breathing entity — an exhibition unto itself — that features an elaborate system of natural ventilation. To create air flow, the design guides prevailing breezes throughout the complex, thus lessening the need for air conditioning. (In many ways, the most attractive display areas are on the open-air decks in the Living Core area). Other environment-friend features include sod roofs, storm-water retention tanks, a border of native plantings, preferred parking for low-emission vehicles and a large area of photovoltaic panels to gain solar energy.
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The architect has spoken of the Frost Museum as being a so-called “Hub of Wonder,” but in some ways it raises more questions than it can possibly answer. What, for instance, should a science museum stand for in our post-fact era when climate change and other scientifically verifiable truths are dismissed for political and economic ends?
The museum sits on a densely loaded site, awkward and complicated in many ways, but also spectacular. The surrounding architectural “gauntlet” is daunting, sited as the building is between Herzog and De Meuron’s masterpiece (Peréz Art Museum Miami) on one side, and Zaha Hadid’s unfinished neo-Goth condo tower (1000 Museum) on the other. The Frost is ultimately overshadowed by those two opposing entities: PAMM horizontal and low, the condo vertical and tall.
As a result, the Frost is difficult to enter, both conceptually and visually. It is outer-directed and porous in many places: open to the breezes, open to the backdrop of downtown Miami, open to the ships turning in the port. The bulging sphere of the planetarium is evident from Biscayne Boulevard, but other elements never fully congeal as a single entity and the museum remains a building of disparate parts. For this reason, the architecture seems oddly betwixt and between, caught somewhere in the process of becoming, as if reflecting the construction delays, lawsuits and budgetary shortfalls that perplexed the $305-million museum’s development.
A randomized pattern of cast-concrete panels on the city side seems arbitrary. Indeed, the “front” of the museum is really the back, co-located with the service entrance and loading area. While the lack of a conventional entry sequence is in some ways problematic, it also presented a challenge: how to create a multi-directional structure in such a complex setting. Some parts of the Grimshaw plan offer hints of a solution.
The design becomes more coherent as you move around to its eastern side, where a curvaceous tower is clad in ceramic glazed disks. The result is a soft but resilient surface, something like the interior of a seashell turned inside out. Those same small, circular tiles catch the light as the wall turns to the north and leads to a street-like arcade that cuts through the center of the complex — a five-story canyon. This feels more like the building’s true entrance.
Some of the museum’s most alluring displays are the most unnerving: a congregation of jellyfish undulating through a blue-tinted underworld, suggesting (to me, at least) a future of floating cities made up of translucent pods, cellular and self-sufficient, yet cyber-spatially interconnected. The “River of Grass” exhibition on Level 4 highlights the fragile ecosystem of the not-too-distant Everglades with digitally animated otters, alligators (”Alice the Alligator”), panthers and roseate spoonbills. (There’s also a plastic shark’s head through which you can gaze and experience the subjective eye of an underwater predator).
But it’s a relief to leave the galleries darkened for digital displays and walk out onto the upper deck of the Living Core, with its refreshing breezes and dramatic water views, connecting us back to Biscayne Bay and the 734 square miles of wetlands that lie to the west. Beyond the skyline, towering cumulus clouds absorb wetness and remind us that we live in the middle of a massive natural display that changes every single day.
Below the terrace lie laser shows, live coral collections, free-flight aviaries and interactive dance floors. The 250-seat planetarium takes visitors into outer space and beneath the ocean, but the centerpiece is without any doubt the great Gulf Stream Aquarium that penetrates three levels of the central section. Here, a half-million gallons of seawater pumped in from the ocean support a galaxy of aquatic life, from mahi-mahi and devil rays to hammerhead and tiger sharks that loop around the circular pool. Viewers can watch all of this and, in a sense, become an intimate part of the subaqueous realm through a 31-foot-wide oculus lens that looks up through the aquarium from one of the lower levels. This is where the action takes place.
Though it may not be environmentally or politically correct to keep such magnificent creatures in closed captivity, the aquarium and the oculus make for a monumental moment: not just for the children who squeal with excitement every time one of the sharks passes overhead, and not just for the architects or the museum curators, but for an entire city. A city that is booming yet teeters on the brink of environmental disaster.
Gazing up through the aquarium from below, the oculus offers a marvelous new perspective: a window onto the future. Like the mythical city of Atlantis, Miami will no doubt return to the sea, and if there’s an unspoken theme running throughout the new museum, it is just that: the nature of being locked into such watery uncertainty, while looking up towards the light.
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