Saturday, November 17, 2012

Designing a World Class Aquarium

The Living Planet Aquarium is in the process of building a new 136,000 square foot aquarium, located in Draper, Utah, just off 12300 S. and I-15. Along with many more animals, the facility will include themed galleries, interactive exhibits, spaces for educational programs and events, and more. The construction team broke ground on October 24, 2012, but that was by no means the beginning.

It had always been a goal of CEO Brent Andersen to create a world class aquarium for Utah. Early in the process, Brent and the designers had to determine what the new building and its exhibits would look like. Senior Digital Media Specialist Ari Robinson and Art Director Chris Barela began developing concept art to bring some of the design ideas to life several years ago. The inspiring images you now see started out as nothing more than sketches in notebooks or on white boards. Some images could not be fully realized on paper and were made into physical 3D models. Some were transformed into computer graphics. Ari and Chris collaborated with and gathered feedback from staff, designers, architects, donors, and visitors. The ideas went through many iterations before the team made final renderings to share with the public and blueprints for construction.

Sketch of Discover Utah exhibits

Slot canyon cross section 
Sketch of cave exhibit

The exterior of the building is designed for both visibility and to convey a theme. “We wanted the building to be easy to spot, to become a recognizable landmark for visitors,” Ari said. “We designed a flowing shape and curved structure to give a fluid and aquatic feel without being literal. We wanted to avoid using specific ocean-related objects. Instead, the curve could evoke the fin of a shark, a crescent moon, or something else, leaving much to the visitor's imagination.”

Once the size of the aquarium was determined, the shape of the exhibits and the exterior evolved together. The designers have created a plan to best utilize the space. There will be several exhibit galleries, including Journey to South America, Discover Utah, Ocean Explorer, Deep Sea Gallery, and a Changing Exhibits Gallery that will host new exhibits every year. “Each gallery focuses on telling a story, and each exhibit within that gallery helps to tell it,” said Chris. All of the animals from the current aquarium will all be moving to the new aquarium, and part of the designers' work involved re-using much of what is in the current building. The current penguin tank will become the new caiman tank, while the caimans' old tank will become the new anaconda tank, each animal getting an upgrade in the process. For the penguins, sharks, and otters, new larger tanks have been designed as the centerpieces of their galleries.

Model of bridge in Discover Utah gallery

Discover Utah gallery

According to Ari and Chris, the biggest challenge in the design process is scope. “The project is almost overwhelmingly large,” said Ari. “The space is huge, and for each design element, we have to consider all of the details.” Chris shared an example. “The Discover Utah gallery will contain a slot canyon that visitors can travel through. Where exactly in the gallery will it be located? What will its twists and turns look like? All of this must be mapped out beforehand.” The process of imagining these elements continues behind the scenes, while digging begins on-site. The physical building has just begun, but the plans needed to realize it are well on their way to completion.

Ari and model of South America gallery

Rendering of South America gallery

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