Tucked beneath the white roof resembling a circus tent, the Columbus Center's vast, sunlit exhibition hall looks like the set of some sort of science-fiction fantasy in the making.
Near the entrance lies the head of a striped bass that'll be the size of Jonah's Whale -- 3 tons of plaster painted green and silver, stretching 52 feet from gaping mouth to flailing tail.
Prefabricated boulders being bolted together will form a man-made mountain, complete with cascading waterfall.
The shell of a horseshoe crab sprawls 75 feet from end to end, its innards soon to be a high-tech theater showing the depths of the sea. Nearby, a walk-through cell will offer a close-up look at its human likeness, magnified 3 million times.
The exhibits -- dreamed up by a renowned Walt Disney Co. designer, fabricated in California, taken apart and shipped to Baltimore on flatbed trucks -- have at last begun arriving at the Columbus Center's long-awaited Hall of Exploration.
With the May opening of the exhibit hall, the final piece of the $160 million Columbus Center, the gargantuan exhibits will inhabit a world focused on the infinitesimally small organisms that constitute life itself.
Blending science with a bit of Disney, a bit of Hollywood, the exhibition hall represents a bold attempt at melding entertainment and cutting-edge research taking place in labs overlooking the exhibits.
"It's science as theater really," said Stanley Heuisler, president and chief executive of Columbus Center Development Inc.
"It's sort of like a science circus, a larger-than-life arcade dedicated to science," Heuisler said.
"This place will prove science can be fun."
To make research science fascinating for kids, as well as those left thoroughly uninspired by long-ago beakers and Bunsen burners, the Columbus Center turned to a master of his craft: Walt Disney Imagineering's Bran Ferren.
Ferren, a three-time Academy Award winner, has designed sets for the Broadway shows "Evita", "Cats" and "Sunday in the Park with George."
He's done stage productions for Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Paul McCartney. His special effects credits include "Altered States," "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier."
His latest exhibits reflect his taste for the extravaganza.
Visitors will walk right into the horseshoe crab, and experience the depths through the senses of a sand-tiger shark.
Inside the crab, an "immersion theater" seating about 40 people will feature floor-to-ceiling screens, computerized sound effects, simulations of what feels like wind from a truck going by to humans -- and motion to a shark.
A walk through the striped bass's mouth sets off a motion sensor, which starts a multimedia presentation showing bigger creatures devouring smaller ones, from trophy fish to tiny microbes.
At the man-made mountain and falls, water will gush 160 feet a second, and the adventuresome will be able to stand just beyond the spray spying a reef and oysters through the underwater lenses of microscopes or catching simulated rockfish on computers.
The human cell takes visitors on a journey from the nucleus through the membranes with five stations and high-tech videos explaining it all.
Beyond the attention-grabbing spectacles, the hall features 48interactive, multimedia workstations linked to a powerful Sun Microsystems computer network that will tailor visits to individual interests and knowledge and link visitors to Columbus Center scientists, references and the Internet.
At labs designed for laymen, visitors will test water quality, spool DNA from fish cells -- it looks like tiny threads forming on a glass rod -- or learn of lessons about life in its myriad forms: viruses, cells, microbes that could spare oysters, clean oil spills, detect pollution.
Such are the means of at last demystifying the Columbus Center for visitors, expected to number about 400,000 the first year, Heuisler said.
"Everybody's been reading about the Columbus Center, driving by the Columbus Center, seeing the Columbus Center on television and hearing about the Columbus Center," he said.
"But the frustration for most people is that they still don't know what it does. It's kind of the mystery project of Baltimore. "
Research space actually makes up 80 percent of the entire Columbus Center, at the Center for Marine Biotechnology and the Science and Technology Education Center.
The intensive work focuses on the study of the biology of the ocean's plants and animals and is expected to yield discoveries leading to new medicines and commercial products, as well as considerable economic spinoff.
It's by no means purely or even mainly the abstract stuff of academic science.
Here, the scientists' work is expected to help develop high-tech fish farms, clean up of hazardous wastes at military bases, new antibiotics, hormones to induce fish spawning.
Carol Bossert, a biologist who serves as the director of the hall and the center's vice president for programs, said the emphasis on real-world applications of science played a big role in developing the hall.
"We tried to give in a very dramatic way the drama and excitement of work taking place here," she said.
"It's difficult to communicate any kind of science to an unwilling public, and most people are a little apprehensive about science and technology in general.
"I think a lot of it has to do with their not knowing how it affects daily life."
Beyond the distinctive roof covering the exhibition hall and the labs it adjoins, many hope the newest addition to the Inner Harbor acts as a catalyst to expand the tourist district.
Tourism leaders view expanding and diversifying the area's offerings as crucial to staying competitive and boosting the city's $1 billion-a-year tourism trade.
Past efforts to branch outward from the Inner Harbor tourist center have brought high-profile failures at the Power Plant and two separate entertainment complexes on Market Place, just northeast of the harbor.
But the push eastward and north has gained renewed momentum with the Columbus Center's exhibit hall, a $25 million entertainment complex being developed at the Power Plant, a Disney-designed children's museum at Market Place and three separate proposals to build a major hotel.
Looking eastward from the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, Christian Mari, general manager, sees hope in the Hall of Exploration and the other coming attractions.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with that part of town except that it needs some critical mass to draw the visitors," he said. "It's just a matter of giving the visitor more choices, more destinations."
Pub Date: 1/21/97