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Showplace of the stars; Architecture: A dramatic new museum houses the most sophisticated virtual reality tour of the universe ever created.


NEW YORK -- On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a remarkable new museum has been fashioned from the simplest of geometrical forms.

Its exterior is a 12-story-high cube, with two outer walls made of colorless glass. Centered inside, as if it's floating on air, is a white aluminum sphere, 87 feet in diameter. The glass is so clear and the sphere is so large and luminous, especially at night, that it practically forces people to stop and look inside.

The building is the Rose Center for Earth and Science, a $210 million exploratorium that opens tomorrow as the latest addition to the American Museum of Natural History. The symbolism behind its design is as direct as its forms. The seemingly levitated sphere contains the new Hayden Planetarium, centerpiece of the addition. It also represents the universe of scientific information inside. And the gleaming glass cube is the window on that universe.

"It makes the science transparent, by de-bricking it if you will," explains museum president Ellen Futter. "It draws visitors to the building and makes them yearn to get inside the sphere and, by extension, into the cosmos. . . ."

Built to replace a 1930s-era planetarium that became outmoded over the years, the 330,500-square-foot Rose Center has been described as the most ambitious not-for-profit project to open in Manhattan since Lincoln Center was completed in the 1970s.

Larger than the largest museums in many cities, the Rose Center sets a new standard for planetariums by providing the most sophisticated virtual reality tour of the universe ever created. Its 20-minute Space Show -- presented inside a 429-seat theater that occupies the upper half of the "Hayden Sphere" -- is alone worth the trip.

But the significance of the Rose Center goes far beyond the star show, captivating as that may be. Working with the purest of forms, architects James Stewart Polshek and Todd Schliemann of the Polshek Partnership have created a rich composition that serves as a scientific icon for the museum and a bold new landmark for New York City.

Enduring forms

The sphere and the glass box are two of the most enduring forms in modern architecture, with examples ranging from Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes and Wallace Harrison's Perisphere for the 1939 World's Fair to Philip Johnson's Glass House and the crystalline office towers designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

While nodding to those precedents and many other landmarks, including I.M. Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, the final composition stands as a compelling work of modern architecture that grows out of and reflects the very science it helps explain.

But the designers didn't just reinvent the planetarium. As visitors will discover, they showed how architecture can bridge the gap between art and science.

The Rose Center is an articulated spatial experience designed to dazzle and inspire visitors in much the same way that the monumental spaces of medieval cathedrals inspired religious pilgrims. Polshek calls it a "cosmic cathedral" and notes that the main volume is just three feet shorter than the nave of New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

"But it isn't religion now. It's science, scientific education, that the pilgrims are coming for, and they are of all ages," he says. "The architecture is intended to enthuse and support and, frankly, awe, so that these people will return again and again."

"This is architecture with a purpose. Architecture in the service of science. Architecture in the service of education," says Futter. It "underscores the real goal and mission here, which is . . . to bring the frontiers of outer space and discovery to the people."

Larger expansion

Constructed on the northern edge of the museum, near the intersection of Central Park West and 81st Street, the glass cube is the most prominent part of an expansion that includes a garage, dining facilities, park and, opening this spring, a roof terrace.

The main arrival point, located just beneath the giant sphere, is called the Hall of the Universe. Glass elevators take visitors from there to the theater in the top half of the sphere, where they will see the inaugural space show, "Passport to the Universe," narrated by actor Tom Hanks. Then they can take an escalator down to a second theater in the lower half of the sphere, the setting for a presentation about the Big Bang, narrated by actress Jodie Foster.

After leaving the sphere, visitors descend a spiraling pathway that traces 13 billion years of cosmic evolution. They also can tour the Scales of the Universe exhibit, a walkway around the cube that teaches visitors about the relative sizes of atoms, planets, stars and galaxies. At the end of their journey, visitors wind up back in the Hall of the Universe, where they can explore interactive exhibits designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates.

Much of the credit for the richness of the experience belongs to the designers, who were originally brought in to "dust off" the old planetarium, which opened in 1935. As the design team began to work with the museum staff, it became clear that the old building wasn't worth preserving. The Hayden hemisphere, with its geocentric view of the universe, was no longer the right size or configuration.

Polshek said he concluded early on that a sphere would be a fitting shape for a new planetarium, since the sphere is a dominant shape in the universe. The design team studied precedents, including Etienne Louis Boullee's design for an 18th century spherical planetarium that was never built.

Spatial experiences

But unlike the freestanding globe at Orlando's EPCOT Center or the World's Fair Perisphere, Polshek said, he wanted this one to be enclosed in a larger, climate-controlled structure, so the surrounding area could be part of the visitor experience. That notion eventually led to the idea of propping the sphere on metal supports inside a glass box.

The Center's geometrical forms, so pure and simple when viewed from the street, create a variety of spatial experiences for those who venture inside. In the lower-level Hall of the Universe, the bottom of the sphere provides a roof above the interactive exhibits. From the second-level Scales of the Universe promenade, the sphere becomes a teaching tool, representing the sun, a larger star and the universe itself at various points. From inside, its curving dome becomes an ideal backdrop for a re-creation of the Orion Nebula.

The architects further enriched the experience in the way they detailed the building. This is an unquestionably modern space, devoid of stylistic touches from previous eras. Certain elements evoke structures one might find at Cape Canaveral -- including elevator gantries, overhead walkways, satellite dishes and futuristic control panels.

The message behind the imagery is clear: No longer are we Earth-bound astronomers, limited to gazing up at the night sky. Through the wonders of technology, we have been transformed into intergalactic travelers, capable of exploring deep space from any point in the universe, and this is the place to start. (Even the elevator reinforces this conceit; its computerized voice politely thanks visitors for "choosing to explore the universe with us.")

What's most admirable about the Rose Center is the sense of restraint and authenticity reinforced by the design. Disney may reign supreme in Times Square, but the experience here has none of the fantasy or Star Trek-style trappings that could have set the wrong tone about space exploration.

At a time when so many urban attractions are giving in to Disney magic and Hollywood razzle-dazzle, science centers particularly need to be careful not to devolve into science fiction. The use of Hanks and Foster as narrators wasn't absolutely necessary, but their participation certainly doesn't detract from the experience. The Rose Center never loses credibility. It may be Hubble meets Hollywood, but for once, Hubble comes out on top.

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