Monterey Bay Aquarium
Photography: Bruce Damonte

My family’s most recent visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium occurred while I was enjoying the 2015 Monterey Design Conference, around the point at Asilomar. Over dinner the other night, I asked them what stood out for them about the building, and our 15-year-old daughter said, “When you go in, the first thing you see is the bay.” Which pretty well nails it.

The partners of Joseph Esherick, FAIA, at EHDD—George Homsey, FAIA; Peter Dodge, FAIA; and Chuck Davis, FAIA, the architect of the aquarium—were of one mind with Esherick’s belief that “the ideal kind of building is the one you don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about modesty, but about purpose and performance. For these architects, a window isn’t something you look at; it’s something you look out. If it’s working as a window should, what you see is the view.

The purpose of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to engage Monterey Bay, and the architecture serves that end. A vivid success is at the heart of the original building, completed in 1984: the world’s first captive kelp forest. The magnificent plants thrive because they’re not in a simulated ecosystem, just a well framed one. The tank is open to the sun and the water comes directly from the bay. During the day, the water is filtered so you can see the fish. But at night, when no one’s looking, it’s drawn straight in, full of nutrients and tiny creatures and the other seaweeds that have taken root on their own, as well.

That sort of interconnection is omnipresent, as is the firm’s technical prowess (seawater being, after all, about the most corrosive thing you can throw at a building). They’re both products of the partnership between Chuck Davis and his client, David Packard, who—as Davis relates it—had just stepped down from Hewlett-Packard and was looking for something to do. Packard’s two daughters were marine biologists and, as it turned out, Julie Packard became and remains the aquarium’s executive director.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
Photography: Bruce Damonte

Davis describes the interview: “It was an hour and a half long, and at the end he stood up and said, ‘When can you go to work?’ I was shocked. It was the only time I’ve ever been hired on the spot. It was on a Wednesday, and the next Monday I was down in Monterey setting up an office.”

Packard, Davis says, “was six foot eight and gruff, an archetypical business tycoon, tough and opinionated. I had never been around somebody who could take apart issues or problems and then make good decisions like he could make.”

Chuck Davis is a big man, too. He’s hardly a tycoon, but otherwise the description fits him just as well. They must have made quite a pair, meeting each week at the site, working through the deal that Packard had proffered: “ I’m going to come every Friday to look at what you’ve done. If I like what you’ve done, we’ll work another week. If I don’t like what you’ve done, I’ll pay you off and send you home,” said Davis, who, with the support of his future partners Duncan Ballash, AIA, and Marc L’Italien, FAIA, added the Outer Bay wing in 1996 and completed an extensive renovation in 2011. Two years later, he retired from EHDD: He’d gone 30 years without getting sent home.