Sweet Dreams by the Bay

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

The city of Long Beach has never evoked images of innocent pleasures. Its iconic power came as a symbol of America's industrial and military might. One thinks of shipping docks, naval yards, rowdy sailors--not a place to take the kids. The sea here has never seemed to be for play.

The Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, which opened to the public this weekend, aims to change all that with one bold stroke. Built as the centerpiece of a $557-million waterfront development covering 310 acres, the $117-million aquarium stands at the edge of a sprawling esplanade on a quiet bay overlooking the giant cranes of the now-defunct shipping port. A palm-lined, circular harbor--just completed and soon to be populated with tour boats and tall ships--frames the site's northern edge, and city planners hope to break ground on the first phase of an adjoining 500,000-square-foot retail and entertainment complex by the end of the year.

As architecture, the aquarium is solidly fixed on a cheery future. Designed by San Francisco-based Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis with Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum architects' Los Angeles office, the aquarium's curvaceous, sculptural forms create a playful symbol of what Long Beach could one day become: a safe and happy destination for tourists, which, these days, is every city's formula for urban economic recovery. The building is successful because it gives that desire an architectural presence. It falls short because of the architects' reluctance to look harder at the urban realities of the city's past, which would have resulted in a design of greater depth.

Here, architecture functions as metaphor. The aquarium's undulating forms evoke cresting waves, a churning ocean. The building's roof is loosely broken into three overlapping shapes, each playfully curved, the last curling down over the building's entry like a wave crashing on the shore. The boat-like form of the ticket and information booth--painted a deep blue--pokes out from underneath, undaunted. Visitors enter the building on either side of the booth as if parted by a ship's prow. The effect has a Jules Verne-like innocence, an upbeat celebration of the sea and its creatures.

That playful sense of motion is the design's strongest feature, and it helps the building fit cozily into its context. Seen from the new harbor, the aquarium's architecture reads like a collection of discrete forms rather than as a monolithic structure. By visually breaking apart the structure, the architects successfully break down the building's scale, opening the exterior to the city. The 157,000-square-foot building does not dwarf the surrounding landscape; its scale is human.

These themes continue inside in the aquarium's vast entry hall. There, the long curvilinear form of a balcony and a swooping stairway snake along one side of the hall, while light spills in from large clerestories. Above, the requisite fiberglass whale--this one 88 feet long, its back dramatically arched--echoes the undulating ceiling. At the far end of the hall a massive two-story-high tank draws visitors deep into the space before filtering them off into the various exhibits, and a crescent-shaped bridge suspended by cables leads to the aquarium's second-story restaurant. Seasick yet? That's the idea. Visitors will pour through these spaces like schools of slippery fish.

But the entry hall also makes subtle visual links back to its urban setting. From the balcony, visitors can peer out from under the bowed ceiling either at downtown Long Beach or look down at the harbor's tall ships. Only once you pop through to the structure's other side does the ocean waterfront truly reveal itself.

By contrast to the openness of the entry, exhibits are intimate and dark. Thick concrete walls and the heavy mass of the water pressing in from all sides give one a sense of the building's true weight. The maze of acrylic pipes that run along the low ceiling--the aquarium's life support system--remains partially exposed, while tanks emit a familiar, eerie underwater glow. The best of these--the soft coral garden--is designed in the shape of a long, tube-like corridor, its enveloping walls creating the illusion that one is floating inside an undersea passageway.

The building is laid out as a series of winding processions, with each of the various paths eventually looping back to the main hall so that visitors can reorient themselves before moving on. Many of the exhibits are outside, on terraces overlooking the bay. A small children's amphitheater uses the sea as a backdrop. A craggy artificial rockscape frames the outdoor seal tank. From here, the Queen Mary--now an immobile museum piece--and the harbor's massive loading cranes loom over the bay as distant testaments to the city's past. The idea was to create a variety of architectural experiences, to keep the visitor moving between indoors and out, light and dark, tight and open spaces.

Chuck Davis, the aquarium's principal designer, is best known for his work on the popular Monterey Aquarium, which opened in 1984, and it is telling to compare the two. At the turn of the century, Monterey was a dense seaport and home to a thriving canning industry. Housed in a restored canning factory, the Monterey aquarium's shed roofs and rigid concrete frame evoke an urban toughness that tightly ties it to its context. The building's two main wings wrap around a natural tide pool, and it looms over the ocean, propped up on concrete piles.

At Long Beach, the context was less well-defined. The city's legacy as a shipping harbor and naval base

is gone. The Pike--a seedy waterfront amusement park swarming with sailors on leave that once stood near the site--closed in 1979. City planners had no interest in reviving that part of the city's past. As a result, the site was essentially a blank slate, and the lack of a tight urban context resulted in a less compact composition, detracting from the building's sculptural power.

Nor did Davis pick up on one of Monterey's strongest architectural themes: exposing the aquarium's mechanisms and life-support systems through the design. At Monterey, pumps, wave machines and various support mechanisms are all part of the tour. Here, they are more discreetly tucked away.

Davis claims to have been inspired by the recent work of Frank O. Gehry, the Los Angeles architect who has become a world figure since the unveiling last October of his much-celebrated design for the Guggenheim building in Bilbao, Spain. The influence here of Gehry's exuberant structural forms is obvious. But Gehry's talent is in his ability to find clues in the immediate context and to make beautiful what once was perceived as ugly. At Long Beach, one could have imagined an architecture that would transform the city's historical legacy into something fresh without erasing its memory. That would have given the architecture both more sculptural muscle and a tougher, more complex urban presence.

Nonetheless, the design of the Long Beach aquarium offers a strong architectural experience. If it ignores the complexity of Long Beach's rough past, it creates a viable anchor for the future of the waterfront. And, in the end, it's also an alluring place to ogle fish.

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