Exploration Place Science and Children’s Museum

Moshe Safdie is a refugee from the “style wars” that have swept across the international design landscape over the last three decades. Outspoken in his disdain for movements like postmodernism and deconstructivism, he has fled from trendy skirmishes between “hot” and “not” on favor of an independent career, producing work that is difficult to categorize or label. Not a media darling and rarely imitated by starstruck architecture students, Safdie has, with less fanfare than most, produces consistently over the last 35 years buildings of great variety, integrity, and imagination. His buildings begin with what his mentor, the late Louis Kahn, called “Volume Zero” – the very essence of a problem – and grow out of a sincere investigation of purpose and place. His approach is rooted in the humanist tradition of Alvar Aalto, Kebin Lynch, and Christian Norberg-Schulz, all of whom emphasized appropriateness and responsiveness over personal expression.

It was precisely these values that drew officials of Exploration Place, and interactive science museum in Wichita, Kansas, to select Safdie to design their new building over the five other big-name architects on the shortlist: Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Hugh Hardy. As museum chairman Phil Frick recalls, “Moshe seemed to us not to have a fixed style, but to address each project in its own way.” Because this is an institution committed to science, technology, and exploration, the risk-taking, invention, and creativity inherent in Safdie’s design process were challenging and appealing to the board.

Safdie’s desire to tightly integrate building design and user activities captured the interest of the museum’s leadership as well. Put off by the “black box” character of so many recent interactive museums, they were convinced that the building design, both inside and out, could play a powerful role in conveying their message. Museum president AI De Sena observes, “We came with a more expansive notion of the relationship between architecture and exhibit design than most institutions of our sort. But Moshe stretched us well beyond that.”

The architects worked closely and interactively with a range of program and installation specialists, with surprisingly symbiotic results. Vistas, materials, shapes of spaces, and the proximity of exhibits to landscape features often reinforce the messages of the learning environments. An 18-foot-tall simulated tornado occupies a glass-enclosed acute corner of the building, making it seem to whirl across the exterior landscape. The backdrop for an exhibit on sedimentation is a broad, river-dominated view. There is a refreshing openness, clarity, and spaciousness in both the exhibit design and architecture that offers a distinct departure from the visual overkill and cacophony of so many children’s museums and science centers.

But the particularity and responsiveness of the building’s design is not limited to a reaction to program and purpose. In fact, as one of the museum’s exhibits showing Safdie’s sketches and design process demonstrates, the project’s character is very much drawn from its region and context. The museum’s 20-acre waterfront site, at the confluence of two rivers and adjacent to downtown, was the primary factor that drew such a star-studded list of architects to the project initially. Safdie, like most of the other candidates, suggested strong site-related notions at the interview stage: moving an existing roadway to allow the building to “kiss” the river directly, and creating a permeable building that would not separate the river from the adjacent parkland.

The ultimate building design occupies its pivotal site with extraordinary grace and drama. Safdie split the museum program into two separate buildings: A covered bridge links an “island” pavilion for exhibits to a pavilion along the river’s edge, which houses the lobby, an auditorium, offices, and other functions. “The two-building solution,” notes Frick, “was a way for the building to have closer proximity to the water without separating the park from the river.” The land-side building hugs the earth and becomes a part of the vast flatness of the surrounding prairie. The island building engages the sky with its playful peaks and fluid shapes. “What,” asks Frick, “could be more about Kansas than the land and the sky?”

Blessed by a prior public works project that stabilized the water level of the river, and also by available funding to relocate 1,500feet of McLean Boulevard, a major thoroughfare that originally split the site, the architect was able to create a spectacular dialogue between buildings, programmed outdoor spaces, parkland, river, and city. George Hargreaves’s landscape design for this newly animated waterfront extends both didactic and geometrical qualities of the building into the surrounding park.

The sum of all these specific responses to mission, program, region, and site is a building with integrity and presence. Safdie says that he wanted to create “complex forms that would bespeak the factors that shaped them.” He looked to the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India, an astronomical instrument with an evocative geometrical composition, as a model of “complexity generated by reason.” Safdie’s longstanding fidelity to platonic geometries is extended somewhat here by his use of two toroids to discipline and unify the building’s shapes. Through the design process, the building transformed from additive and “capricious in its complexity,” in Safdie’s words, to holistic and serene. Unified material treatment and integrating motifs such as curved glu-Iam beams balance the individually expressive parts and create a community of forms based in both logic and visual finesse.

The dramatic and individualistic building that emerged has, in a very short time, become a landmark and a calling card for its institution. Though De Sena acknowledges the “antipathy” the science museum and children’s museum community has for strong architecture, his new building has thoroughly convinced him that “architecture is extremely important to the positive experience of the visitor and to accomplishing our mission.” Frick adds, “We wanted a building that was so compelling that people had to go there. We got that.”