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Too Much Nature 

Getting wet at the Academy of Sciences.

Wednesday, Dec 24 2008

If you're planning to visit the California Academy of Sciences this wet holiday season, bring an umbrella and be prepared to use it — indoors. The recent rainstorms have exposed a flaw in the natural history museum's much-hyped new digs (and we're not talking about the conspicuous absence of the two-headed snake): It rains in the main cafe. Seriously.

On rainy days, big drops splash atop folks drinking coffee and eating chocolate bread pudding — not in the rainforest exhibit, but in the Piazza, the noshery with the glass ceiling near the front door. What gives? One cafe employee explains (just after he and his black-hoodied counterparts finish furiously squeegeeing up the place): "That's how close they want you to get to nature here."

Funny stuff, but cold comfort when you're getting pelted by rain. For $484 million, you'd think the academy would be able at least to create a coffee shop as dry as a Starbucks. Another barista suggests the glass ceiling plates aren't lining up properly, while a "living roof" guide assures that while the building is a "work in progress," the leaking will be fixed eventually. Jeez, wasn't five years enough time to work out the kinks?

"It's not leaking," museum spokeswoman Stephanie Stone insists. "The area is an open-air space. It was never intended to be an indoor space." Though adjustable screens reduce the amount of rainfall, "they're never going to eliminate it completely." She adds that the Piazza is one component of the center's "natural ventilation schemes," bringing in fresh air and eliminating the need for air conditioning on the public floor.

"At the original academy we had a courtyard in the middle of the building just like this," she says, "so this was an attempt to preserve the idea of a courtyard and to provide features that would make it more comfortable than it would be if it were a completely open-air space."

In other words, even though the Piazza appears to be indoors, it's actually outdoors. But it's more comfortable than the real outdoors, see, except when it's cold and raining. Everything makes perfect sense now — although it might not make sense to members of your family visiting town for the holidays.

So how about this? If the academy finds another two-headed snake, all will be forgiven.

About The Author

Ben Westhoff


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