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Miami’s New Science Museum Teaches With Architecture

It’s one of the city’s most Instagrammable new buildings–but its design has a deeper mission.

Today, science deniers have vaunted positions in federal government, and scientific research is being ignored. So how then do you design a science museum in a climate that’s so hostile toward and skeptical about the subject matter? To Frank Steslow, president of the Frost Science Museum, it’s about fostering knowledge and understanding–embedding it in culture.

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“We’re not interested in presenting people with facts; it’s more about engaging people in the complexities of scientific discovery,” he tells Co.Design. “The content we present is less important than the process–we’re developing an appreciation for curiosity and investigation, which fuels scientific entrepreneurship and innovation.”

The Frost Science Museum’s new location in downtown Miami is the culmination of a $306 million, 10-year plan to turn science into a cultural draw. Visitors will be transported to outer space via its planetarium, to prehistoric eras through its dinosaur installations, and to underwater environs via its 500,000-gallon aquarium–which comes with a highly Instagrammable 30-foot-wide oculus. As they cycle through exhibits housed within a 250,000-square-foot “village” of buildings, museumgoers might learn about the Florida Everglades ecosystem, the physics of flight, and the hydrological cycle.

Balancing Big “Gotcha” Moments With Subtle Details

The building itself, designed by Grimshaw Architects, had to become an exhibit to the very philosophy the Frost embodies. Unlike art museums–which populate cities in spades–science museums are few and far between and don’t have the same diverse programming as the Frost. Classic science museums usually focus on collections of specimens and rarely have terrestrial habitats, aquariums, planetariums, and interactive installations all under one roof.

When Grimshaw architect Christian Hoenigschmid-Grossich embarked on the project, he and his team visited science museums all around the world to better understand their spatial approaches and potentially mine them for ideas. The California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco, was a close cousin of what the Frost wanted to achieve with its programming since the Renzo Piano-designed building also includes an aquarium, planetarium, artifacts, and terrestrial habitats. The Grimshaw team also admired the Monterrey Bay Aquarium for its use of seawater in its tanks–a move that makes operations more sustainable.

“Without having many precedents, and just a few and each are very different, and also given that this museum wanted to go well above its former presence, we understood we need to do something fresh and very unique,” Hoenigschmid-Grossich tells Co.Design. “If you tour this building, it’s not just another science museum–it’s in and of Miami.”

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The most visually dramatic element in the museum is the aquarium’s oculus, an oval-shaped skylight-style aquarium that lets visitors stand below the marine life. The museum knew it wanted its aquatic element to be very prominent, because public aquariums have the highest attendance level of any science museum (and because Miami doesn’t have one). Plus, aquariums let people engage with science on multiple levels through biology, ecology, and chemistry. The oculus draws visitors into galleries where they can then take in the quieter and smaller-scale installations, or they can continue to another big moment in the building: the planetarium, which has an 8K-resolution immersive screen.

“An overall experience is set by a series of individual experiences,” Steslow says. “And those all need to be different for someone to walk away fulfilled. It’s a challenge for designers to create peaks and valleys for emotional experiences. Some are big ‘gotchas’ and some are subtle. So it’s about hitting a sweet spot of quiet, contemplative experiences and loud, engaging, high-energy experience to create a great overall experience.”

Battling The Dreaded “Museum Fatigue”

The museum itself–really a mini “village” of four buildings joined by outdoor passageways, as Hoenigschmid-Grossich describes it–is actually one big exhibit on environmentally conscious design. Thanks to passive cooling, rainwater collection, and rooftop solar, it’s on track to achieve LEED-Gold certification.

“[Earning LEED certification] usually comes down to a credit hunt, and [the Frost] wanted to approach the sustainability angle a bit differently,” Hoenigschmid-Grossich says. “We consider the building an exhibit and tried not to just load it up with sustainability features. We wanted to help the curious person see how this building works and how this piece of architecture came together. What underlying principles and forces could drive the design?”

Since the museum sits on a breezy bayfront location, harnessing the prevailing winds became a defining move. Grimshaw sited the building so that wind would naturally cool the spaces and covered outdoor passageways, which reduces the need for air conditioning and saves energy. During the community workshop phase, many people told the architects that they wanted to be outside while they were at the museum–a seemingly contradictory notion.

“When you go from one building to the next, you’re constantly reengaging with the exterior environment,” Hoenigschmid-Grossich says. “You see downtown Miami, you look out into the bay. There’s an ongoing connection with its context, urban and natural, because the exhibits are also representative of a South Floridian environment. It’s all meant to be local.”

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The village approach also helped the designers respond to the needs of visitors. They understood that it would be a destination for families, so the outdoor areas offer a respite from museum fatigue in that parents can take their kids outside and feel comfortable parking their strollers in a less busy area. (Inside, the museum’s circulation also responds to big families by offering empty areas for doing the same.)

“In addition to the exhibits and actual program of the building, there’s enough breathing room and ‘safe spaces’ away from the hoopla to allow visitors to have a longer stay,” Hoenigschmid-Grossich says.

Climate also factored into more practical considerations in the design. Because Miami is in a hurricane zone, the museum was subject to stringent design requirements. This meant that the architects couldn’t use large expanses of glass, which they might have done if the building wasn’t in a severe weather zone. Instead, they covered the facade in textured materials that catch the sunlight and change throughout the day, like precast concrete and glazed ceramic tiles that shimmer.

Science can be a dry topic, or it can be dynamic and exciting–it all depends on how the story is told. Thanks to the Frost’s architecture and its diverse programming, it’s leaning toward the latter. Attendance has already exceeded expectations, with an estimated 4,000 people visiting on weekdays and 8,000 on weekend days.

We’re in a time where science is viewed with distrust, so science museums like the Frost can perform an incredibly important civic duty. Hopefully more crop up.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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