The new aluminum-panel-clad entrance to the Exploratorium on Pier 15 in San Francisco.

The new aluminum-panel-clad entrance to the Exploratorium on Pier 15 in San Francisco.

Credit: Bruce Damonte


Ask any San Francisco schoolchild to name their favorite field trip of the year, and it’s a safe bet that they will cite the most hands-on museum in town: the Exploratorium. Until recently, that trip entailed piling on a bus and entering the cavernous expanse of the Palace of Fine Arts—a Roman- and Greek-inspired folly, originally designed by Bernard Maybeck for the 1915 Panama–Pacific Exposition. The visits were made all the better by the fact that the classical architecture gave way to a veritable playland of exhibits: static generators that made your hair stand on end; Alice-in-Wonderland-esque rooms that seemed to grow smaller; and cow-eye dissections carried out for groups of slightly horrified kids every few hours.

The historic Beaux-Arts bulkhead of Pier 15.

The historic Beaux-Arts bulkhead of Pier 15.

Credit: Bruce Damonte


But, over time, the landmark space proved something of a liability: The institution was forced to limit the growth of its continuing education and teacher training programs due to lack of space. “The facility wasn’t working—we would have had to cannibalize ourselves,” says Dennis Bartels, the Exploratorium’s executive director.

EHDD transformed the historic pier shed and added a glazed pavilion at the piers edge. Solar panels line the roof as part of the buildings net-zero-energy strategy.

EHDD transformed the historic pier shed and added a glazed pavilion at the pier’s edge. Solar panels line the roof as part of the building’s net-zero-energy strategy.

Credit: Bruce Damonte


The institution’s board began talking as early as 1991 about renovating or relocating to another site in the city, and, in 1998, they retained local firm EHDD and lead designer Marc L’Italien, FAIA. Once relocation seemed certain, the goal was to find a larger, more accessible space. But it wasn’t until 2004, when the city offered them another set of architectural icons—piers 15 and 17 on the historic waterfront—that they found a site that suited all of their needs: “When people saw this old, empty, industrial pier, it was like seeing the Exploratorium all over again,” Bartels says.

  • A new public plaza between the museum on Pier 15 and neighboring Pier 17 (which will be transformed into workshops for the institution) is filled with outdoor exhibits, including a fog bridge.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    A new public plaza between the museum on Pier 15 and neighboring Pier 17 is filled with outdoor exhibits, including a fog bridge.
  • The expanded, punched-out 'O' in the Exploratorium sign turns pedestrians into exhibitis in the public plaza outside the new museum space.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    The expanded, punched-out 'O' in the Exploratorium sign turns pedestrians into exhibits in the public plaza outside the new museum space.

The new 9-acre campus is nearly five times the size of the old facility, and it opens onto the Embarcadero, which boasts a streetcar and access to several bus lines. EHDD renovated the existing Pier 15 shed building into a massive exhibition hall; nearly the length of three football fields, the interior can accommodate all of the existing displays and then some. In a stark contrast to the windowless Palace of Fine Arts, natural daylight pours through clerestories that run the length of the shed. A second floor, in the form of built-out bridges that cross the width of the space, is now home to the institution’s offices, as well as continuing education classrooms.

The public plaza (shown here looking back toward the city of San Francisco) features many exhibits available to the public, and others that are reserved for ticketed museum goers.

The public plaza (shown here looking back toward the city of San Francisco) features many exhibits available to the public, and others that are reserved for ticketed museumgoers.

Credit: Bruce Damonte


Outside, a 1.5-acre public plaza plays host to a series of outdoor exhibitions—including a fog bridge by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya that mimics the city’s signature weather—with a further half-acre of outdoor exhibits accessible to ticketed visitors. The plaza creates an active urban environment that the old site sorely lacked. “This was the juice of the project,” L’Italien says. “They are getting a much more public presence on the new site and a level of visibility they had never had.” The historic Pier 15 bulkhead had to remain untouched, so the outdoor exhibits “create the marquee,” L’Italien explains. “You come upon it and you think ‘I gotta see this!’ ”

  • A new structure at the end of Pier 15 holds a publicly-accessible restaurant on the first level and the new Bay Observatory on the second.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    A new structure at the end of Pier 15 holds a publicly accessible restaurant on the first level and the new Bay Observatory on the second.
  • Preserved industrial building fronts along Pier 15.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    The architects preserved as much of the historic industrial signage as possible on the shed building along the Bay View Walk on Pier 15.

Anchoring the end of Pier 15 is the only new structure on the campus: a two-story glass box that holds a publicly accessible restaurant at ground-level, and a bay observatory on the upper level. This waterfront gallery is a showcase for a series of exhibits focusing on the surrounding ecosystems. “For 40 years, we’ve been taking Mother Nature and shrinking her to table-top size,” Bartels says. “Now, we get to go outside and play with her.”

The Bay Observatory features exhibits related to the Bay ecosystems; a terrace connects to the main exhibit hall on Pier 15.

The Bay Observatory features exhibits related to the Bay ecosystems; a terrace connects to the main exhibit hall on Pier 15.

Credit: Bruce Damonte


  • The terrace guardrail (seen close-up here) is inscribed with a pattern derived from phytoplankton native to the local ecosystem.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    The terrace guardrail (seen close-up here) is inscribed with a pattern derived from phytoplankton native to the local ecosystem.
  

The process of constructing the new facility was akin to an Exploratorium exhibit in and of itself. Many community members saw rehabbing one of the decrepit pier buildings as “an absolutely ridiculous thing to do,” says the client’s project director Kristina Woolsey. “You need to be a dreamer, and you need to have an uncanny sense of survivability.” Pier 15 was originally constructed in 1914, and rebuilt in 1930, but the wooden structure underneath had been largely untouched. The team employed divers to repair nearly 1,200 of the pilings that support Pier 15, and build a series of 30 steel mega-piles to offer further bracing. EHDD also removed decking between the two piers, restoring the original two-finger layout while leaving some of the original wooden pilings in place to serve as anchors for outdoor exhibits. Once the under-pier structure was shored up, a new 8-inch concrete slab was placed on top of the existing pier slab. The structure is now so sound that L’Italien says, “If there’s an earthquake, you really want to be at the Exploratorium.”



  • The Exploratorium lobby and ticketing area opens into the main exhibition hall on Pier 15.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    The Exploratorium lobby and ticketing area opens into the main exhibition hall on Pier 15.
  • The main exhibition floor of the Exploratorium, looking into the shop, where exhibits are created and restored.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    The main exhibition floor of the Exploratorium, looking into the shop, where exhibits are created.

Adding another layer of complexity to the renovation of the drafty shed was an early goal to make the new facility net-zero. The new slab is embedded with more than 40 miles of plastic tubing for radiant heating and cooling systems. Fresh air is brought into the structure through a series of overhead ducts, and the roof is outfitted with a 1.3-megawatt photovoltaic array. Current projections show that the Exploratorium is on target to meet its energy goals. “But you don’t just hand over the keys and have it be net-zero,” L’Italien says, noting that the systems will continue to be fine-tuned to ensure that energy consumption doesn’t exceed production.

Nearly all of the institutions existing exhibits made the move to the renovated double-height shed on Pier 15. Large windows on the far northeastern end of the pier offer spectacular views out to the bay.

Nearly all of the institution’s existing exhibits made the move to the renovated double-height shed on Pier 15. Large windows on the far northeastern end of the pier offer spectacular views out to the bay.

Credit: Bruce Damonte


For now, EHDD and the Exploratorium are basking in the early signs of success: Since the waterfront facility opened in April, the number of visitors has increased by 400 percent, and school buses filled with the next generation of San Francisco science enthusiasts are lining up out front. “There were a number of skeptics along the way who didn’t really think it was possible to get beyond the Palace of Fine Arts,” L’Italien says. “But as soon as they got occupancy of the new facility, they didn’t look back.”

  • While much of the exhibit space is lit by clerestory windows that run the length of the shed, some exhibits required a more controlled level of light, and were strategically located in darker areas of the exhibit floor.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    While much of the exhibit space is lit by clerestory windows that run the length of the shed, some exhibits required a more controlled level of light, and were strategically located in darker areas of the exhibit floor.
  • Staff offices are accommodated in glazed bridges that span the exhibit space, such as the one seen from the lobby, offering employees views out over the exhibit floor. Classrooms are also located on this level.

    Credit: Bruce Damonte

    Staff offices are accommodated in glazed bridges that span the exhibit space, such as the one seen from the lobby, offering employees views out over the exhibit floor. Classrooms are also located on this level.

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Project Credits 
Project Exploratorium at Pier 15, San Francisco 
Client Exploratorium 
Architect EHDD, San Francisco—Marc L’Italien, FAIA (design principal); Charles M. Davis, FAIA (principal in charge); Rick Feldman, AIA (project manager); Tara Ogle, Assoc. AIA (construction administration/design); Shani Krevsky, AIA (project architect, exterior); Michelle Hill, AIA (project architect, interior); Lotte Kaefer, AIA (project architect, observatory); Matthew Rouse (concept design); Elise Seingier (concept design, construction administration); Cesar Duarte, Daniel Maxfield, David Hurley, AIA, David Seidel, Denise Zuniga, Elizabeth Rajala, Emily Bello, Assoc. AIA, Gloria Lee, Glennis Briggs, AIA, Hope Mitnick, Janika McFeely, Assoc. AIA, Jessica Rothschild, AIA, Johanna Hauser, John Christiansen, Kate Tans, Katherine Miller, AIA, Kelly Sloan, AIA, Lindsay A. Furlong, AIA, Margo Majewska, Noreen Hughes, Rika Kurihara, Samantha Lautman, Samee Sheikh, Sid Conn, Sijing Sanchez, AIA (project team) 
Mechanical Engineer Integral Group 
Structural Engineer Rutherford and Chekene 
Electrical Engineer Cammisa and Wipf 
Civil Engineer Kennedy/Jenks 
Geotechnical Engineer Treadwell and Rollo 
Construction Managers Wilson Meany Sullivan 
General Contractor Nibbi Brothers General Contractors 
Landscape Architect GLS Landscape Architecture 
Lighting Designer David Nelson & Associates 
Telecommunications Teladata 
Acoustical Consultant Charles M. Salter Associates 
Food Service Consultant The Marshall Associates 
Elevators Van Deusen & Associates 
Laboratory Cannon Design 
Historical Preservation Page & Turnbull 
Theater Consultant The Shalleck Collaborative 
Code Consultant The Fire Consultants, Holmes Fire 
Environmental Review EIP Associates 
Environmental Due Diligence Tetra Tech 
Wayfinding/Signage Experience Design—Bill Hill, JKeppel.Creative Strategies 
Security Consultant Security By Design 
Cost Estimator Oppenheim Lewis 
Size 330,000 square feet 
Cost $300 million capital campaign

Material and Sources 
Adhesives, Coatings, and Sealants Dow Corning dowcorning.com; Sika usa.sika.com 
Carpet Tandus Flooring tandus.com 
Ceilings Armstrong armstrong.com; Eurospan eurospanstretchsystems.com; Hunter Douglas hunterdouglas.com 
Concrete Scofield scofield.com 
Furniture Teknion teknion.com 
Glass Bendheim bendheim.com; Viracon viracon.com 
Gypsum USG usg.com 
Insulation Knauf knaufinsulation.us; Owens Corning owenscorning.com 
Lighting Borden bordenlighting.com; We’ef weef.de; Zumtobel zumtobel.us 
Photovoltaics SunPower sunpowercorp.com 
Plumbing and Water System American Standard americanstandard-us.com; Elkay elkay.com 
Roofing Johns Manville jm.com; Siplast siplast.com 
Seating Forms + Surfaces forms-surfaces.com 
Structural System AMT Metal Fabricators amtmetals.com 
Walls Gallina USA gallinausa.com; Hufcor hufcor.com 
Wayfinding Thomas Swan thomasswan.com