Art infused with science

“Going green” at times seems similar to the weather — everybody is talking about it.

Then there is Renzo Piano, who is doing something unprecedented for the sake of ecology. On Saturday, when Piano’s stunning $488 million California Academy of Sciences building opens in Golden Gate Park, the Italian architect will present San Francisco with a living, breathing, exemplary structure.

Among the many reasons to make the new museum your destination, there is the enjoyment of something so spectacular architecturally, so righteous in its respect for the environment.

In the new world of The City’s burgeoning museum scene, the academy’s rhapsody in glass rises along with the Fumihiko Maki-James Stewart Polshek Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (1993), Mario Botta’s San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1995), Gae Aulenti’s Asian Art Museum (2003), Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum (2008) and other remarkable buildings (perhaps trying to make up for the new, boxy horrors along Howard Street).

Piano, turning 71 just before the academy opening, is a Pritzker Prize winner, one of the architects responsible for the famed 1977 Pompidou Center in Paris and now designer of five towers bearing his name in the enormous San Francisco Transbay development.

For the academy project, Piano took “nature as the fundamental element of inspiration,” calling its setting in the middle of Golden Gate Park “a miracle … one of the most beautiful parks in the world.”

He had a bold, seemingly impossible idea of lifting a large slice of the park into the air and sliding the grand 410,000-square-foot building under it.

And now, there stands the parklike roof, with its seven hills — reflecting both San Francisco and Rome — its live vegetation helping to cool, hydrate and aerate the museum.

To “create a sense of transparency and connectedness between the building and the park,” Piano’s structure allows a view of the park from inside and an uninterrupted view of the building’s interior from the outside.

The all-glass central piazza, uninterrupted by columns, is a huge open space, making the building transparent across its east-west axis.

“As an architect,” Piano has said, “the first thing you have to do is to walk on the site and try to understand the geography and topography of the land. You know, places talk. They have a story to tell [but] sometimes architects don’t listen to them.”

Clearly, Piano has “listened” carefully. His museum is about to join distinguished company.

From Arthur Brown Jr.’s 1915 Beaux-Arts City Hall (with its immense Baroque dome modeled on that of Paris’ Les Invalides) to the new de Young Museum (2005) across the park concourse designed by Herzog & de Meuron (of the Beijing Olympics “Bird’s Nest” stadium), architects and San Francisco have responded well to each other. But until now, not nearly as “green-ly” as Piano.

IF YOU GO

California Academy of Sciences

Where: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

When: Opens Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $24.95 general; $19.95 seniors and students; $14.95 children 7 to 11; free for children 6 and under

Contact: (415) 379-8000; www.calacademy.org

Note: Opening ceremony begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday; special extended hours until 9 p.m. and free admission all day Saturday. On Sunday, there will be extended hours, from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. regular admission applies

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