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Urban A&O, New York City, United States

Thursday 07 Apr 2011

Something in the water

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Award Entry

Urban A&O's innovative work has tested limits of material and form through the development of new spatial geometries 

The centre attraction of the Steinhart Aquarium is the Water Planet, a 6,000 sq ft exhibition area. Designed in collaboration with New York exhibition design firm Thinc Design, the exhibit incorporates new modes of design and technology.

The Water Planet is the core of an aquarium that explores the diversity of life on earth and the varied habitats it creates. The exhibition focuses on water and the way life adapts to water's many different conditions and states - extremes of abundance and scarcity; stillness and movement; salinity and freshness; heat and cold. It gives visitors an opportunity to learn about and contemplate the relationship between water and life - a relationship that most people take for granted.

The Water Planet firmly establishes new visual, conceptual and creative benchmarks for aquarium design. It offers visitors opportunities to touch water in its many states - as mist, steam, flowing and frozen - and the exhibition's forms and surfaces embody the tactility and sensuality of water. The exhibition integrates living animals and powerful multimedia in order to bring complex natural phenomena within the grasp of young visitors and families. This expanded opportunity for learning about life and the environment is exactly what the Academy - an internationally-recognized research institution whose public face combines an aquarium, natural history museum and planetarium under one roof - wanted to provide.

The walls and exhibition islands of the Water Planet reflect the sensuality of water via the heightened forms that we were able to create. The complex curving and moulded surfaces seemingly flow from one to another. The forms invite touch, which in turn will trigger media windows to open on many of the surfaces and create flows of water and steam across them. A seamless media field with 10 interlinked projections transforms the exhibit space each hour into a full-round theatre, delivering a powerful and entertaining educational programme. 'Dive Stations' provide the chance for tactile, hands-on experience with real specimens like dried corals and shark's teeth, with interactive media that contextualise the objects and provide exciting encounters with the organisms as living creatures. The result is an immersive, tactile, full-body learning experience.

Urban A&O is one of a handful of design firms that operate within the sophisticated computer design environment of parametric modeling, employing the powerful tools of CATIA-based software. Urban A&O's innovative work has tested limits of material and form through the development of new spatial geometries with strong conceptual underpinnings that link directly to the Water Planet's needs. Working with the agency of parametric modeling tools, the firm's capability to bring radical new forms into practice provided the all-important link between conceptualization and realization.

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