Saturday, September 27, 2008

Opening Ceremony of California Academy of Sciences

'When I came here, I said "Mamma Mia! I really need this job!" said Renzo Piano, one of the world's greatest architects.

He not only got his dream job, but today was standing outside of the California Academy of Sciences in the Golden Gate Park for the opening of what is being acclaimed as one of this year's finest new buildings in the world. And the greenest.

The project began nearly ten years ago.

'I spent a lot of time on this bench,' he said, indicating one, 'trying to feel out what (the) building should be.

'This picture came out of the blue.'

And what a picture.

Out of his imagination that absorbed the natural beauty of the park and surrounding hills, there arose a building of glass that connects to the park from within and without, and a living roof like no other: one that has green gently-curving knolls like the hills of San Francisco that are planted as habitat for wildlife.

Running through the centre of the building you can see the park from one end of a piazza to the other.

'Normally a science museum is dark and intimidating', Renzo said, 'but this is transparent, the opposite of opacity, enjoying the place, enjoying all this nature.'

Beside him on the platform were Mayor Gavin Newsom, Executive Director of the CAS, Dr Greg Farrington, Board Chair, Bill Patterson, and Nancy McFadden, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, lead corporate sponsors who are also sponsoring the weekend's celebrations including free entry to the museum today.

The ceremony opened with the presentation of flags by the San Francisco Police Department followed by a performance of the national anthem by soprano Heidi Melton, Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera.

There was then a Native American blessing, at the end of which the audience were asked to give a traditional response of 'Oooh!' rather than applaud.

'Have a beautiful day,' said Martin Martinez as he ended the blessing.

Next, Dr Farrington introduced Renzo Piano as a Pritzker Prize-winning architect - the equivalent, he said to the amusement of the audience, of winning a Nobel prize or American Idol competition.

In the early days Renzo, he said, had climbed on the roof of the old museum and looked down, and stood on the nearby hills.

'He came to understand the soul of this institution,' he said, calling the museum a 'kingdom of light, a celebration of nature.'

The museum, he said referring to Renzo's original sketch, had evolved from 'that one little imaginative curve nearly ten years ago.'

Renzo, who is Genoan-born and celebrated his 71st birthday this month, responded to the compliments. 'I am very, very touched. At a certain age,' he went on, 'you become more romantic.

'What can I say? I should say, "I love San Francisco!"'

He turned to Gavin Newsom, 'Lord Mayor, you have the most beautiful city in the world to run,' he said, meaning also natural attributes of sun and sea.

And he said of the Golden Gate Park, 'This place is loved...I hope it's going to be loved more and more.'

The museum has been designed with enormous emphasis on the environment, a subject that motivates him deeply.

We have a great duty to care for the earth because it is fragile and it made sense, therefore, he said, for the institution to have an important role to 'tell the story' of how fragile the earth is and that it needs our help.

'I can see millions of young people coming here and seeing the need to know and to love nature.'

Concluding with lightheartedness, he said of the handover of the building to the city, 'This is a very important day. Up until yesterday, this building was mine!

The audience gave him a deserved, enthusiastic standing ovation and the Executive Director again thanked him.

'Renzo Piano has given our city and our world one of the greatest buildings anywhere, he said. And the city, he added, were fortunate that a small group of people had had the vision to push the project through.

Nancy McFadden spoke next. She said they were committed to 'stewarding our fragile earth' and would continue to support the museum with other free days.

She praised Mayor Newsom for his care of the environment and said that with the Academy he was setting standards higher than ever.

'Today the Academy is wowing the world,' she said of it's magnificence.

Mayor Newsom spoke with pride of the city's new museums, of the de Young facing him across the park, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Conservatory of Flowers and Arboretum, and the Japanese Tea Garden, also in the park.

'What an outstanding compilation,' he said.

He gave credit to Senator Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, for their support for the museum and to say that they were unable to be present due to their need to be in Washington over the current financial crisis.

Then he quoted from Plato, that 'if there is any hope for the future, those with lanterns will pass them on to others.'

He looked down from the dias at former mayor Willie Brown - sitting with Mayor Newsom's wife - and said that the institute 'would not have been possible without his faith and consistency.'

A few thousand people had already made their way into the park and were queuing to take advantage of the free open day. Overall, the museum capacity would be about 30,000, said Mayor Newsom, and he paid tribute to a mother with three children who had put herself and her family at the front of the queue by being there at 5.30 am!

Mindful of the $488 million cost that has meant the largest-ever cultural fundraising effort in the city, he said, 'I want to thank the taxpayers of San Francisco for their support of this institution as well.'

In a final tribute to Renzo Piano, he quoted first from an interview Renzo had given to Vanity Fair magazine, in which the architect had said he lifted up the Golden Gate Park, slid the building underneath and put the park back down on top of it!

'This is the greenest building of it's kind anywhere in the world. This is the best of the best!'

Dr Farrington then introduced Rock Kids, the museum's link with students. He held up black logo-ed teeshirts for sale and said that anyone wearing one would have free entry to the museum.

And then the Rock Kids performed the finale to the ceremony. Carrying boxes that contained butterflies - symbols of transformation and metamorphosis of the new Academy, said Dr Farrington - they stood at the front of the stage and released the butterflies into the park.

As butterflies flew up into the air the sun sparkled through their wings - although many, to the merriment of the audience at first perched overhead on the entrance to the museum, perhaps for shelter.

All that was left was for Dr Farrington 'to declare this Academy of Sciences open!'

And with that hundreds of excited people, press and members first, streamed in through the doors. Outside in the park, a programme of entertainment, which runs over today and tomorrow, was starting.

Pics show: Architect Renzo Piano; Dr Greg Farrington; Rock Kids releasing butterflies; Mayor Gavin Newsom with Renzo Piano

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