Connecticut Science Center by Pelli
Science Alley's drama is accentuated by its proportions — it is long from east to west but much shorter from north to south. This slice of space makes the entire building intelligible at once. The space is bookended by an angled tower to the south that contains exhibit space on the top three levels, while the building's stepped form to the north holds more exhibits on the upper floors, administrative space, and a gift shop and cafe on the ground floor.
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After only a few minutes in Science Alley you understand how the Science Center is organized and how you can move through it: you ascend via the exposed elevators on the alley's east end and then circulate through the exhibits via the bright red staircases hugging the alley's south wall.
Science Alley also sets up a theme for the building that unfolds as you make your way through the exhibits. That theme is related to the second aspect of the design, which distinguishes many of Pelli's buildings: its connections to the city and its role in the urban fabric.
From inside, the Science Center constantly refers back to Hartford. From Science Alley you look east over Route 91 to the Connecticut River and the rest of New England beyond. If you look west, downtown Hartford and its landmarks are carefully framed — the Boat Building on Constitution Plaza, Travelers Tower, the Old Statehouse in the distance at the city's center. A ride to the top of Science Alley in one of the glass elevators seems to lay Hartford and the Capitol Region at your feet.
Exhibit spaces in many museums are cut off from the world around them. This is not the case at the Science Center. In any of the exhibit spaces, you can walk up to floor-to-ceiling windows and look out over the river, the nearby Convention Center, and Constitution Plaza to the west. In fact, on the sixth floor there is a little cube of space that allows you to float above the city and the river. On other floors there are outdoor terraces that provide a little breathing space from the exhibits, and remind you once again of where you are.
The Science Center is expected to earn a LEED Gold rating, and several exhibits are devoted to the building's sustainability strategies, such as green roofs, recycling, and alternative, renewable energy sources.
Part of the center's energy is supplied by a 200-kilowatt fuel cell. According to John Amatruda of Viridian Energy & Environmental, sustainability consultants on the project, the fuel cell can generate electricity at a cheaper rate than you can buy it off the grid. It is also possible to capture waste heat from the fuel cell and use it to pre-heat the building's hot water and heating system.
An 86-kilowatt photovoltaic system is planned for the south wall. Combined with energy-efficiency strategies, these systems are expected to help cut the building's consumption of energy from the grid by more than half.
The building also uses carbon dioxide sensors to control the amount of outside fresh air supplied to the interior as the number of people inside the building fluctuates. Exhibit lighting was designed to use low-energy fixtures with little ambient light, which cuts the kilowatts used for the exhibit spaces by 40 percent compared to a conventionally illuminated exhibit space.
Thirty percent of the site is vegetated, including roof gardens and other planted areas, reducing stormwater runoff. Dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals, and other water-saving features are expected to cut water consumption by about 40 percent.
Finishes low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were chosen; recycled-content materials and regionally acquired materials were used; construction waste was managed; and the building is slated to earn a LEED innovation credit for the exhibit on sustainability.
Exterior Spaces with Urban Connections
From Science Alley you can walk out to a large, two-acre (0.8-hectare) plaza to the east, slated to be planted with flora native to this part of New England. Facing the plaza is the Science Center's cafe, which helps promote a bit of civic interaction. Views from the plaza back toward the city again offer dramatic views of some of Hartford's high-rises.
Pelli's design has made the best urban connections that could be expected on a site that is virtually an island surrounded by roadways. One surveys the four corners of the Columbus and Grove intersection to discover that only the Science Center makes any semblance of an urban gesture at the corner, although it is a restrained one. The design places a glass-enclosed community room at the corner, which is open to public use and is the one bright spot at the intersection.
Rising above the city's street grid to Riverfront Plaza, the new Science Center connects to this urban park on its north side with two entries — one next to the gift shop and another leading to Science Alley, with access to the plaza and the cafe. Driving or walking west on Founders Bridge, which crosses the Connecticut River, Pelli's building makes an impressive introduction to Hartford — especially at night, when the Science Center glows with excitement.
Viewing the building from the plaza levels and considering the building's geometric forms and its swooping roof, one might imagine that the Science Center has a secret wish: It really wants to be right on the Connecticut River, instead of separated from it by the I-91 corridor. The sloped walls of glass and the north wall stepping down to the east make the building look like it is actually moving toward the Connecticut, the rolling waters of which are symbolized by the gracious wave of the roof. In this bittersweet architectural gesture, the Science Center remembers why there is a city here in the first place, and wants to reconnect with that history.
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Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, the chair of the University of Hartford’s Department of Architecture, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek. More by Michael J. Crosbie