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Hartford's Science Center Is A Dazzling Jewel


June 21, 2009

The new Connecticut Science Center has taken its place as the keystone of the Adriaen's Landing development, the centerpiece in a multimillion-dollar, multi-year planning effort to energize Hartford at its waterfront. The city has a new architectural showpiece, designed by Connecticut's own superstar architect, Cesar Pelli and his New Haven-based firm, Pelli Clarke Pelli.

After Pelli won the commission in 2004, I speculated in The Courant on what the new science center might be like, based on some of Pelli's other buildings in Connecticut. I guessed that it would be filled with uplifting spaces and be sensitive to its urban context. It delivers on both counts.

A visitor's first experience of "Science Alley," the name of the glassy, sun-filled space at the building's heart, is breathtaking. From the center's main entry on Columbus Boulevard, you ascend via an escalator into a 130-foot-tall space with walls of glass east and west and a vibrant yellow wall to the north, across which the sun plays all day. 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.

Pelli's buildings around the world are studded with memorable public spaces. Such urban spaces are a civic gift places to gather in cities that are often bereft of welcoming public realms. At the science center, this great space is open to the public you can enjoy its lively nature without paying admission.

Science Alley also sets up a theme about the building's 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 I-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 Phoenix "Boat Building" on Constitution Plaza, Travelers Tower, the Old Statehouse in the distance. A ride to the top of Science Alley in one of the glass elevators seems to lay the Capitol Region at your feet (and makes you realize just how hemmed in the city is by a lasso of highways).

Exhibit spaces in many museums are cut off from the world around them. Not so at the science center's, which afford views of the river, the nearby Connecticut Convention Center and Constitution Plaza. On the sixth-floor facade there is a little cube of space that allows you to float above the city and the river. Other floors have outdoor terraces.

Outside Science Alley is a two-acre plaza that will be planted with flora native to this part of New England. The center's cafe faces the plaza. There will be a bridge over Grove Street connecting the convention center to the science center that officials hope to finish this year. This connection is crucial to bringing another artery of foot traffic to the science center.

Pelli's design has made the best urban connections that could be expected on a site that is virtually an island surrounded by roads. At the intersection of Columbus and Grove, only the science center makes any semblance of an urban gesture at the corner. A glass-enclosed community room open to public use is the one bright spot on the four corners (the Marriott Hotel, across Grove, is downright hostile to its new neighbor, turning its back with a wall full of exhaust grilles). As for the other two corners across Columbus, they are prime examples of what has distinguished the worst of Hartford urban design over the past 40 years blank walls that essentially tell pedestrians to go to hell.

The new science center adjoins, and has two entrances on, Riverfront Plaza, which connects the river, via the Founders Bridge walkway, to Constitution Plaza, via the artful Columbus Boulevard pedestrian bridge.

But the footbridge isn't the best vantage point to view the science center. The building's geometric forms and swooping roof seem to give off more energy when seen from the river side of the building. The shapes suggest that the science center has a secret wish: to be right on the Connecticut River. The sloped walls of glass and stepped north wall make the building look as though it's moving toward the river, the rolling waters of which are symbolized by the gracious wave of its 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. If only its "magic carpet" roof could carry it over I-91.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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