All images courtesy of Arch Out Loud
On an underutilised waterfront site that borders the East River and the Eleventh Street basin in New York city, Arch Out Loud invited students and professional designers to redefine the aquarium typology, examining its relationship to the urban context and the public domain. The competition proposed the integration of a waterfront park, testing the typically ‘introverted’ entity of an aquarium as well as the nature of the New York city riverfront property that has been largely seized by high-end private residential buildings. With 556 participants and 178 proposals representing 40 countries and six continents , the designers of the NYC aquarium & public waterfront challenged physical boundaries, waterfront flooding issues and the very distinct makeup of what aquariums have been and might become.
The jury stated that the selections are focused on projects that challenge the relationship between city and waterfront, using the aquarium program as an opportunity to bring the city and its people close to the water in a new way compared to traditional parks and aquariums. Another critical element is that most of these proposals have a certain simplicity and that their design communicates their intent rather clearly-but not bluntly, a critical trait for a project geared towards public use. These proposals go beyond the iconic to start constructing a story, or a fairytale that gets embedded in the life of the city. They emphasise the building of the atmosphere and the experience and in that they are more in tune with our times and the way people try to live life – a life they broadcast, a life in which experiences are more valuable than possessions, a life where we start to understand the consequences that human evolution and pollution have had in the world and try to redefine our relationship with our planet.
The winning proposal was designed by Lissoni Architettura, with Piero Lissoni as team leader, alongside Miguel Casal Ribeiro, Mattia Susani, and Joao Silva. The scheme creates a dynamic system that interacts with its surroundings, offering multiple ways to experience the water world represented by eight triple-height transparent biomes: four oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Southern) and four seas (Caribbean, Mediterranean, Tasman and Red Sea), while the North and South Poles are expressed by a readily visible iceberg in the center of the atrium.
The main idea is to generate an environment whereby visitors feel that they themselves are entering the water to discover the beauty of the marine life on display; a living shell that opens to the sky during the day to reveal the sea worlds and which closes as darkness falls to take on a ‘second life’ as a planetarium, protecting the arena and the biome domes within, like a shell protects the pearl.
Having the water level define the starting point of the project, the site is excavated to become a spacious and innovative water basin, with the aquarium and marine center forming a submerged two-level island accessed via a perimetral ramp that starts from the lobby entrance and leads visitors along the biome pathway. A sloped beachfront encloses the parking area to form a panoramic public space, while a boardwalk surrounds the basin to become a floating ring connecting the two waterfronts and encompassing the aquarium and its sliding roof.
Other considerations included asking if a city with 520 miles of waterfront need a traditional aquarium to engage and educate the public? Also, on this specific site in queens where a person can view one of the world’s most celebrated skylines, what experience involving a building or a landscape can hold its own and establish place?
The jury recognised projects that reinvent the notion of the aquarium, reinforce the ecology of the NY waterfront, use water as a main material in their design, organisation, and function, that create simple, legible buildings that are relatively well resolved. The ones that explore greater complexity, creating more unique expression and that take a more landscape based, ‘nonbuilding’ approach. Those that develop a poetic response and establish truly engaging human experiences, that think ‘outside the tank’, to consider the edutainment value of the experience and that recognise the connection to the water as it heightens visitors’ experiences & expectations.