It used to be easy to tell which building was which at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
The original aquarium on Pier 3 was a dark, dreamlike sequence of spaces that immersed visitors in mysterious underwater worlds. Midnight blue walls, charcoal gray carpet, low light levels, brilliant graphics and stunning aquatic habitats helped make it a thoroughly inward-oriented building.
The newer Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 was a bright, open, airy place where visitors could take in sweeping views of the harbor and city skyline while waiting to see bottlenose dolphins in a skylit, 1,300-seat amphitheater. The color scheme included baby blue and beige walls and studded-rubber floors in sea green and tomato red, while large windows made it a much more outward-oriented building.
Designed by different architects for different purposes, these were the Mutt 'n' Jeff of the aquarium world, architectural equivalents of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They never quite gave the impression that they were parts of the same institution.
But it won't be such a cinch to tell them apart much longer. Just in time for the aquarium's 11th anniversary this weekend, directors announced recently that the pavilion will gain a new layer of exhibits by next spring and be renovated to look and feel more like the original building.
Judging by the first exhibit to be completed and future plans, it's the best thing to happen to the aquarium since Gov. William Donald Schaefer took his swim in the seal pool.
The first phase of the marine mammal makeover, completed this summer, involved the underwater viewing area, where visitors can see dolphins in the main pool through a large acrylic window. In the original design by Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick, it was an alcove off the lower-level cafe, a nebulous space that was lost amidst the dining tables and chairs.
Now the viewing area has been enclosed as part of a new exhibit called "Portraits in Conservation." Walls were built to separate the space from the noisy cafe, and large backlit photos were installed to depict marine mammals from around the world. Gray carpet covers the floor and stairs previously clad in locker room rubber. Light levels are dimmed so the chief illumination comes from the tank itself. And for once, visitors in large numbers are using the space the way it was meant to be used, lingering before and after dolphin shows to watch the mammals underwater.
The transformation of the underwater viewing area provides a preview of the changes recommended by Cambridge Seven Associates, architects of the original aquarium on Pier 3 but not involved with the Pier 4 annex. The firm was brought back to work on the changes in conjunction with Grieves Worrall Wright & O'Hatnick.
"It's just Band-Aids, really," says Cambridge Seven partner Peter Chermayeff. "What we're doing is a modest addition of exhibits within the shell and a modest transformation of the space -- controlling light and views and allowing exhibits to hold their own and add some strength."
Early changes can also be seen around the cafe and gift shop, where the beige and blue walls have been painted dark blue and the food service counter made less prominent. But the biggest changes are still to come.
Plans call for the entire perimeter of the building -- the wide corridor all around the 1,300-seat Lyn P. Meyerhoff Amphitheater -- to be redesigned to bring it more in line with the character of spaces on Pier 3. Out will go the beige walls and much of the red trim. Gone will be the rubber floors. Even the large windows will be covered. Instead, the undercroft beneath the stadium seats will be divided into interactive exhibits that focus on various aspects of marine mammals -- habitats, sounds, feeding -- and the aisles will be narrowed to lessen the feeling of disorientation. The bridge between Piers 3 and 4, which feels like one of those airport terminal accordion tubes that connect the plane to the passenger waiting area, will be covered with murals that hint at TC the experience inside each building.
For the next six months it's going to be a mishmash, with some areas Cambridge Seven-ized and others still in their original state. As more work is completed, the buildings will become a vastly more coherent complex. As a later phase of the project, the architects propose to modify the two-story cafe by removing the giant sculpture of Scylla the humpback whale that hangs in the space and decking over the floor to create more room for exhibits.
The amphitheater itself, meanwhile, won't be altered at all. It was always the best part of the Grieves design, with good seats and sightlines. If anything, the stronger contrast between light and dark should make the amphitheater all the more effective and memorable -- a light in the center of darkness.
These design changes grew out of an attempt by aquarium officials to address the circulation nightmares that beset the attraction after the pavilion opened in December of 1990. On busy days, 1,300 people would regularly surge from the dolphin show and disrupt the flow of people moving through the Pier 3 building.
As it turned out, though, the surge of people leaving the marine mammal pavilion was only a symptom of larger problems with the building. Although the 20-minute dolphin shows were always a hit -- Baltimore's version of the Rockettes -- the rest of the pavilion was always too "thin" in terms of supplemental exhibits. For an institution that has prided itself from the beginning for being educational as well as entertaining, it was also far too commercial, devoting too much space to a cafe and gift shop and not enough to education.
In fairness to the Pier 4 architects, there were always supposed to be more exhibits, but budget problems prevented them from accomplishing as much as they hoped by opening day. The real damage done by these cutbacks, though, is the negative effect on the total aquarium experience. Without engaging exhibits similar to those on Pier 3, the building itself became the dominant feature on Pier 4, a giant lobby leading to the main event. Except when they're in the amphitheater itself, visitors can easily be distracted by the ducts in the ceiling and the harbor views and forget what they paid $11.50 to see. Somewhere between the bridge and the amphitheater, the mood is broken and the experience just falls apart.
Designing exhibit spaces is "like writing a piece of music for people on their feet, walking," Mr. Chermayeff says. "You don't want to have the silences that would make them believe the record player is broken. The piece of music keeps going, and that has to be carefully orchestrated. We try to work it out in such a way that there are no big holes, no letdown in the emotional content."
Another dimension of these physical changes involves the political climate as it pertains to marine mammals. From the day it opened, the pavilion has been criticized by animal rights groups that oppose the holding of marine mammals in artificial environments. These groups have been quite successful in fighting to keep dolphins and other whales out of new aquariums planned for other states.
By constructing a $35 million Marine Mammal Pavilion before activists could block it, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has positioned itself as one of the few facilities that will be able to showcase cetaceans long into the 21st century. Cambridge Seven has recommended that Baltimore take full advantage of that edge by revamping the pavilion to present information about marine mammals in greater depth than anyone has before.
"Right now the stadium has no habitat reference," Mr. Chermayeff said. "It's just a bare swimming pool, and we can't change that. But in supplementary exhibits we can address habitats and other subjects that are really dolphin-based -- bioacoustics, the social behavior of these animals, migratory patterns, their physiology, how they receive and transmit sound, how their skin works."
New displays can also provide information about the various marine mammals not housed inside the pavilion, such as Hawaiian monk seals, West Indian manatees, or California sea otters. "The National Aquarium in Baltimore has been focused on dolphins and beluga whales," noted architect Peter Kuttner. "We want to say there they are all kinds of marine mammals."
One may still question the captivity of marine mammals. But besides being esthetically pleasing, these changes ought to help differentiate Baltimore's pavilion even more clearly from the many marine theme parks where dolphins really do just jump through hoops and balance beach balls on their noses.