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First Impressions

September 23, 2004

The Courant asked local architects, scientists and other experts for reactions to the science center designs unveiled Monday in Hartford.

Students Like Safdie

My UConn students were clear about which architectural design they would choose for the new science center. They would build the double-nacelle structure of Moshe Safdie. Though informed only by the photographs published in the Tuesday Courant, their opinion is still worth listening to. Here's why:

This remarkably diverse population of 180 entering UConn students is dominated by those who avoided science through their high school years. When required to take a science course in college, they opted for geology rather than physics, chemistry or biology, thinking (mistakenly) that it would be easier. This is the population we most want to attract to the center because early positive exposure to science often plants the seeds for science careers.

Their clear loser was Zaha Hadid. The remaining votes were evenly split between the other designs.

I couldn't have been more disappointed. Their top choice was my least favorite. They found my top choice - Cesar Pelli - to be lukewarm. The message? Beware of science educators who think they know what's best for their students.

Robert Thorson
Professor of geology

University of Connecticut, Storrs Prof Prefers Behnisch

For me, there is only one choice: Stefan Behnisch's design featuring "green" architecture. This is the 21st century, and a building that will showcase science and technology should be energy-efficient and promote sustainable technologies. We need to teach our children and all future visitors that solar electric panels can provide much of our electricity in Connecticut, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and cleaning our air of excessive carbon, sulfur and nitrogen oxides. We should be demonstrating how hydrogen can be used to power our cars and vehicles. We should be showing how to use the sun for natural lighting and heating.

Other countries around the world are unhappy with how the United States is a wasteful and consumer-happy society. We are in an expensive war in Iraq partially to ensure the continued flow of a fossil fuel. Why not build a science center that shows all of New England, and the United States, too, what science and technology can do for energy sustainability and cleaning up our environment?

Peter Markow
Department of Chemistry
St. Joseph College
West Hartford

Pelli Met Criteria

After listening to the finalists in the competition for the design of the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration, I re-read the advice to the architects that appeared in the Commentary section of The Courant on Sept. 12. These are the statements that I found most compelling:

"My hope would be that scale and sustainability will be carefully considered ... Ultimately, those factors are more important indicators of institutional success than aesthetics." -David M. Kahn

"It should be a `look at me' building, but bizarre geometrics and flamboyant facades do not suit this community. Take a cue from the nearest neighbor, the Phoenix building." -Toni A. Gold

"Hartford has a right to expect that the new science center, however dramatic, will help to mend - not to further rend, as so many mega-projects seem to do - the fragile fabric of the downtown area." - Alan Plattus

"It has to mediate Hartford's two-tiered topography, linking the elevated river-walk promenade and Founders Bridge with the emerging Adriaen's Landing neighborhood and street-level vitality of the new hotel, shops and restaurants on Columbus Boulevard." - Ken Greenberg

"It should be lovely, elegant, filled with natural light." - Linda Case

"It all should be housed in a building that will recognize its surroundings, yet make its own statement by its appearance and by its energy- and resource-saving construction." - Dr. Bob Painter

"Have the architects determined a way to integrate the river into the design? Will the building's design require an extraordinary cost in construction or maintenance ...?" - Frank Lord and Suzanne Hopgood

"Let the building be a soft, `green' island in the local sea of hard, gray concrete." - Robert Thorson

When I applied these words to the four designs presented Monday, only the proposal offered by Cesar Pelli seemed to meet all the criteria.

Ronald P. Johnson
South Windsor

The writer is a vice president of the Antiquarian & Landmarks Society.

A Home Run

I said (in the Sept. 12 Commentary section) that I wanted (hoped for) a home run: a building that touches all the bases and rings all the bells. Well, we have been offered such a building by Moshe Safdie, and he did it without mixing his metaphors.

What he did do, in a presentation that was both profound and dazzling, is give us a building that embraces all the complexities of this site and its program, and masterfully organizes them into two toroidal forms made one by their tight juxtaposition.

The building is bold, defining and inspiring, but not at all capricious. It is an artistic expression flowing from Safdie's understanding of building systems, structure and environmental forces. More important, it reflects his keen awareness of learning and discovery.

Last, it IS of this place, Hartford. As shockingly not-Hartford as this might first appear to some, it truly does fit in by its thoughtful placement, scale, the connections it makes and the views it offers as well as the ones it doesn't obstruct. Moshe Safdie's proposal took the day, and we should take it.

Tyler Smith

Gumbies Vs. Crystals

The audience at the presentations Monday at the Bushnell saw four one-act playlets, four revelations of personal and architectural style and substance.

Cesar Pelli's was the most promising as an initial pass at the design. A vertical assembly of simple tower slabs, it offers character and good fit with site, but also economy of means to ends and, importantly at a time when construction costs are escalating, it seems phasable if money gets tight.

Zaha Hadid's design and presentation, by the same measures, were the least promising of the four. Her Gumbies in a mosh pit, opaquely discussed, do not seem easily achievable whatever might be their virtues.

In between, Moshe Safdie, a pro's old pro, offered striking sculptural forms adjusted, more or less, to use and site. Their forceful exterior clarity almost necessarily makes internal change harder, and intensifies the risk of visual awkwardness if for some reason the building can only be partly completed.

Also in between but with the inverse attributes, the deft and adaptable Stefan Behnisch showed a chip-sculpted box with color-shifting walls. It has potential for economy and much give and take in the course of design development. But unless the crystal mountain at the box's core can manage the trick, it adds up to a cryptic image for the institution.

Patrick Pinnell
Architect and town planner

Hard Choice

Eliminate the Hadid design. The Safdie design looks the most glamorous and seems to have the best impact when viewed from the river and the highway, but the Pelli and Behnisch designs also have great promise. The Safdie and Pelli designs look expensive to build, but I would want to know more on that.

It is hard to tell from the photos how the buildings would look from Columbus Boulevard at street level. And with my level of information, it is hard to tell how the buildings will interact with the exhibits. I like the plaza created as part of the Behnisch design, but I am uncomfortable with the skin without more views.

I would not want to be on the committee making the recommendation.

Frank Lord

The writer lives and works a few blocks from the science center site.

A Design Center?

Were we disappointed? Absolutely not! The four architecture finalists hoping to design the science center gave the audience an uplifting philosophical and physical demonstration of what could be created out of this dreadful site near two highways, a hotel and a dike.

We had all of the visual props we needed to imagine this icon of science and tourism in full functioning mode, meeting the needs of teachers, fueling the imagination of students and pulling people from all over to experience the magic within.

The creative use of form by Moshe Safdie - melded with his use of the green terrace roof and its east-to-west orientation floating on its platform - appealed to me the most. It had wide-open views of the river and city, while maintaining internal focus on its central purpose. It neither overpowered its surroundings nor was overpowered by them, having room to receive the light of day and produce a glowing shell at night.

The Behnisch group provided excitement with a flying classroom, while Cesar Pelli also presented an exciting east-west orientation with creative use of space and an outdoor video screen, the glass structure rising from the site like a colorful storybook creation. Zaha Hadid's proposal had interest, but was too inwardly focused.

The experience was much like I have hoped to create with a city design center: a place for public involvement in projects and plans, compelling graphics and models, and assistance to developers in uniting their creations with the personality of the neighborhoods in which they work. But that's for another day. The science center is very much today.

Dr. Bob Painter
Minority Leader
Hartford Court of Common Council

An Oxymoron

Curiosity is coded in our genes. No one teaches babies to explore; they do it by instinct. Science is to humans what migration is to shad and hibernation is to bears.

Yet, in school, facts must be memorized. Whether they make sense or not is irrelevant. It is no wonder that children learn to hate science.

If we want children to love science and be good at it, we must stay out of their way. Natural science is natural. Science centers, like "bold architectural statements," are artificial. Children should play in the dirt with flowers and insects and toads, not in some "iconic landmark." I vote for making the 2.5-acre spot where the science center is planned a children's park. Right there in the midst of commerce, it would be refreshing, if not therapeutic, to see children being natural.

But there's more at stake than aesthetics. Science is a method for solving problems, and our species faces some mighty ones. According to U.N. data, 40,000 people die each day from hunger, a billion lack access to safe water and 2 billion lack sanitation. Billions of people lack access to physicians and essential medicines. But instead of attacking such real problems, scientists explore the genome and outer space and develop Viagra, Botox and Rogaine. We should sue them for malpractice. But the $150 million science center will portray them as heroes. Is that what you want?

If you want a real science center, find some bare-bones building where scientists can gather to plot a strategic attack on the real problems that plague humanity. And use the $150 million to fund that attack.

Doug Dix
Professor of biology
University of Hartford
West Hartford

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.
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