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The Wonder Piers

The old Exploratorium was well-meaning and beloved. But it was also dowdy and hidden away. Now, it’s anything but.

"Visualizing the Bay" merges old-fashioned cartography with 21st century analytics to reshape how we see the Bay Area.

Fog art by Tokyo-based Fujiko Nakaya.

"Rickshaw Obscura" gives you a new angle on the city skyline.

The remains of a majestic 330 year old fir tree felled by a storm, on display in "Tree Experience."

 "Team Pac-Man," the West Gallery's explortation of resource deployment and social psychology via a coop version of the classic game.

Inside the dark interior of a small trailer parked on an esplanade abutting Pier 15, light streams through a hole in a side panel and reproduces a spectral portrait of the city on the opposite wall. “It’s a classic camera obscura,” says Shawn Lani, curator of outdoor exhibits at the Exploratorium, whose new home is on this windblown outpost on the bay.

As with all camera obscuras, the image it renders is upside down. There’s the inverted Transamerica Pyramid. There’s the pedestrian bridge that joins Pier 15 with Pier 17 and, hovering above it (that is, below it), a shimmering quadrangle of the bay. Cars navigating the Embarcadero register as horizontal flashes of light.

“Camera obscuras have been done hundreds of thousands of times. So when anyone makes one, they say it’s the biggest one in the world, even if it isn’t,” Lani says. But he has a different selling proposition in mind. Somewhere nearby, craftsmen are building a carriage compartment that will house the camera obscura and seat two comfortably. Eventually, the compartment will be mounted on a trike that Exploratorium staffers will use to transport patrons up and down the Embarcadero. In other words, in a sly nod to the ever increasing portability of our high-tech gadgets, it’ll be a mobile camera obscura. It’s called the Rickshaw Obscura, and it will offer its passengers a moving, upside-down perspective on the city that surrounds them.

Looking at familiar landscapes from a novel perspective is a central theme of the new Exploratorium. And it’s not just the Transamerica Pyramid that Lani and his colleagues aim to portray in bold, sometimes disorienting, new ways: The same applies to the Exploratorium itself. For 44 years, the beloved institution’s trailblazing efforts in the realms of DIY science, interactivity, and the commingling of art and technology have radiated throughout San Francisco, the Bay Area, and the world at large. And yet, because of its setting in a sleepy residential swath of the Marina district, it was never quite the civic hub it could have been.

Now, however, as the Exploratorium moves into a $220 million retrofit of Pier 15, reaching 800 feet out into the bay in the midst of prime tourist migration routes, it becomes possible to envision a more central place for the museum in the life of the city. With nearly triple the exhibition space of the original location, the new facility will feature approximately 150 new exhibits (of a total of 600), two foodie-friendly cafés under the direction of Coco500 chef Loretta Keller, giant outdoor art, and a forum with cabaret-style seating for film screenings and live events. Even the construction incorporates the principles of the institution, including a water-pump system that uses bay water to heat and cool the building.

All these upgrades are expected to double the number of annual visitors to a million. But however big and popular the Exploratorium gets, it is still linked in a direct line to its visionary founder, Frank Oppenheimer, whose influence has been rippling through the region for more than 40 years. Oppenheimer and his colleagues were the original Bay Area geeks, spiritual predecessors of Maker Faire, Burning Man, Wired, artisanal handcrafted everything, and several generations of Internet entrepreneurs. The new building just adds the latest chapter to the story. In 1969, when Oppenheimer moved into the Exploratorium’s original location at the Palace of Fine Arts, one of the first orders of business involved cleaning out the bird nests, mouse nests, and pine needles that had accumulated inside the building. (Among other incarnations, it had once served as a Christmas tree lot.)

Although the Exploratorium added many improvements over time, it never really stopped looking like a place where you might come across one of those nests in some dusty corner. It was dark and unheated. It was cavernous. For many years, it didn’t have indoor bathrooms. “San Francisco society was far more comfortable in proper museums with paintings in gilded frames,” writes journalist K.C. Cole in her excellent 2009 biography of Oppenheimer, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens. “The Exploratorium was a little scuzzy for their tastes.”

Still, for Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium was, above all else, a realm of perception and participation. Transparency was so important to him, Cole recounts, that he once “had a fit” when an exhibit developer used glue rather than screws to join some pieces of plastic: He wanted visitors to easily discern how the exhibits had been fabricated.

In the new Exploratorium, that emphasis on clarity lives on. The machine shop where exhibits are built is more visible than ever. The Tinkering Studio, where visitors are encouraged to pursue their own projects, will have many more tools and materials to choose from. The outdoor space, a portion of which will be open to anyone who walks by, not just ticket holders, will give the public a chance to interact with some of the exhibits.

On a visit to the new Exploratorium one afternoon last January, I arrive to find the spirit of Oppenheimer in full effect. A handful of staffers are standing on a second floor terrace connected to the Bay Observatory, an all-glass box at the end of the pier that was constructed to house the Exploratorium’s main restaurant and an expansive gallery focusing on the ecology of the Bay Area.

The staffers are looking at the Bay Bridge through a $1,600 Swarovski spotting scope that seems, on such a clear and bright day, a little like overkill. Here, at the end of the pier’s 800 feet, the bridge feels amazingly close, and the bay yields sharply etched details even to the naked eye—whitecaps moving north toward the Golden Gate, chevrons of gulls.

Still, these folks work for an institution whose holy grail is awareness. Close observation is their raison d’être, the place where both science and art begin, so of course they are looking through a spotting scope. And, fittingly enough, given the intentions of the gallery they’re developing, what they’re looking at is the bridge tower that was sideswiped by a 752-foot oil tanker two weeks earlier. The tanker damaged a 50-foot stretch of the tower’s protective fender, and today it appears that repairs, or at least assessments, are under way. That this latest accident marks the second time in just over five years that a ship has struck the Bay Bridge suggests the challenge faced by the Exploratorium: If even ship captains and bar pilots are so oblivious to their surroundings that a giant suspension bridge could catch them by surprise, imagine how unaware laypeople are.