Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco has all the makings of a destination building. Think of this as the Bilbao of the science museum world.

Legends about its remarkable genesis are already circulating: One we heard was that when Piano visited the existing structure in Golden Gate Park (a building I remember from my Bay Area childhood) to pitch his innovative renovation, he arrived without a single sketch. While other architectural firms were accompanied by large delegations and 3-D models, Piano brought no one with him except his daughter. And after he spent his time listening to people and asking questions, it only took a few quick sketches and a few visionary words to convince the CAS he was someone who understood what they were trying to achieve.

The structure is light-filled, open, inviting, exciting, and yet not so overwhelming that children are hopelessly lost in the miasma of sensory overkill. And yet there is so much under one roof—a four-story rainforest, an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum and lots of open public space to eat, sit, talk, relax. Even on a day with lots of visitors and tons of kids, the sound and body density in the structure feel well managed. The food offerings are also in keeping with a theme of innovative and fresh. (Know of any other museum or public space that has a separate station for spring rolls made to order on the spot?)

The aquarium is underground, and it is the first aquarium I’ve ever seen that doesn’t feel like it was designed in 1952. This feels cool and fast. Yeah, this place has serious Wow factor. Even the lighting of the jellyfish tank seems designed to make it possible for everyone with their ubiquitous digital camera in hand to take spectacularly-lit photographs of ethereal floating undersea creatures.

And then there is the business of the roof. Piano wanted a living roof, with a legitimate ecosystem of its own flora and fauna. They planted hundreds of native plants, didn’t water them and then simply waited several years to see which species thrived. The texture and life of the roof is as beguiling as its rolling terrain that was designed to reflect the San Francisco hills that are visible from the site.

How many places do you know that are both beguiling and educational? Not many. And according to the new director Greg Farrington (who cheerfully joined us at lunch to engage us in an impromptu discussion of the 155 year old Academy) the attendance in the first week has exceeded everyone’s most optimistic estimates. Yes the lines are long, but I find it easier to forgive when the queueing is for the worthwhile and deserving.

Piano definitely nailed this one.

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