September 21, 2004
By TOM PULEO, Courant Staff Writer
Hartford desperately wants a bold architectural statement from its new science center, and on Monday it got four.
The finalists in an international design competition unveiled their futuristic models before a crowd of 200 people - likening their eye-catching works to magic carpets and gondola boats flying and floating above the Connecticut River.
The presentations from some of the world's top architects left many of the attendees at the Bushnell Performing Arts Center impressed and optimistic about the chances of the $150 million center planned at Adriaen's Landing downtown.
The architects were asked to do the near-impossible: Design an iconic landmark that will retain educational formality on a 2.5-acre spot bordered by a new convention center, a hotel, I-91 and Riverfront Plaza. The board of trustees of the Connecticut Center for Science & Exploration is expected to take only four days to weigh the public's reaction and choose a winning firm at a Friday meeting.
"There's an embarrassment of riches to choose from," said Kenneth R. Kahn, executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council. "Each one of them had some extraordinarily strong points. Choosing among the four towers will be very hard. Hartford is lucky to have these kinds of submissions come its way, and we should make the most of it."
Boston-based Moshe Safdie and Associates Inc. started off the four-hour event by showing slides of cobwebs, vulture wings and human skeletons to illustrate structural weaving and unity. His model took the form of dual jet airplane engines - emphasizing shapes called "nacelles," a word of French derivation, he said, meaning "small boat" or "gondola."
Safdie called the transparent, six-level structure "exorbitant in form but with an ordered geometry." It would be constructed of glass and laminated wood and largely covered with glazed aluminum that would give it a silvery look.
"It has a sense of hovering, of floating above the base," Safdie explained.
Safdie could be looking at a busy couple of years. His firm also is a finalist for designing separate museum and performing arts complexes at the Ground Zero site in Manhattan.
Science center officials declined to comment on whether Safdie's potential workload could affect his application.
Next up was Stefan Behnisch, of Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner Inc., who emphasized that his center would incorporate "green" architecture from the start and feature a big sunlit atrium. He also would focus on one main entrance on Columbus Boulevard rather that designing dual gateways, one at street level and another on the esplanade connecting to Riverfront Plaza - as planners had suggested.
In written questions submitted to the moderator, attendees questioned whether Behnisch's building would be too dense for an Adriaen's complex that will also include a convention center and Marriott Hotel.
Behnisch responded that the building would be covered with a radiant and reflecting skin giving the structure varied looks depending on the weather, traffic or movements inside.
"We all get used to the skyline - after a year, we don't even notice," he said. "But if there's an appearance of change, the awareness keeps up."
London-based Zaha Hadid of Zaha Hadid Architects, considered one of the world's premier architects, designed a cluster of four towers of varying heights that merge at the base and then separate into "many complex fingers of space."
Hadid was the least organized of the four architects, leaving an assistant to explain the fine details and at one point openly chastising project architect Christos Passas for racing through his slide presentation.
"I don't know what you're doing," she snapped. "One at a time, please."
New Haven-based Cesar Pelli, of Cesar Pelli & Associates, talked excitedly about how much the project means to him as a Connecticut resident.
"This is very important for me personally and for my firm," he said. "For many reasons, this project connects with me and my life."
Pelli's model featured a 140-foot-high cantilevered roof extending like a platform diving board over I-91 toward the river. He called the design a "magic carpet ride" that would draw in passing motorists out of sheer curiosity.
All four architects said the small site at the northern edge of Adriaen's Landing, alongside a raised highway, presented difficult design challenges.
The science center board of director's facilities committee is expected to recommend a winner Thursday and submit the vote to the full board Friday. CT-N cable television will air its recording of the forum today around 4 p.m.
The cost of constructing the 160,000-square-foot building is estimated to be around $100 million. The finished center would cost about $150 million, including programs and an operational endowment, and would stand as the second-largest in New England, behind the Boston Museum of Science (420,000 square feet). Nationally, it would fall in the medium-size category.
The science center is paying $50,000 for each plan.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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