Tanked up

Something fishy’s going on at County Hall – the new London Aquarium that is. The architect describes the transformation and Jane Lewis appraises the design.

Architect’s Account by RHWL Partnership

The brief for the London Aquarium was essentially a blank piece of paper. Ideas were developed slowly with the client, Shirayama, following visits to several aquariums in Europe.

The area available for an installation at County Hall was the basement and sub-basement of the Riverside building, largely because it consisted of huge volumes which could be adapted structurally. Layouts were developed with concentration placed on the extensive vaults alongside the Thames Wall and the large semi-circular space beneath the former Greater London Council’s Members’ Terrace.

A fundamental aspect of the spatial design was the main entrance and we decided to form this off the riverside walkway on Queen’s Walk.

Visitors to an attraction such as an aquarium expect to find the exhibits fascinating, glamorous, technically interesting and lively. However, at the same time, the team wanted the majestic architecture of the building to enhance the experience of visiting the Aquarium.

County Hall’s plan, dominated by the semi-circular space, suggested not one large tank but two, each 7m-high and 12m-across and viewed from three levels. They became the Atlantic tank and the Pacific tank.

In reality, the Atlantic Ocean is a grey place, with few brightly coloured species. We therefore decided to let the Atlantic tank be blue/grey but fill it with hundreds of fish and light the water to add depth and mystery.

The Pacific tank presented a different set of problems due to the size of the inmates – sharks were considered essential, but how could they be transported through the building to the water? A large goods lift eventually proved the answer, and apparently doesn’t seem to upset the sharks too much.

Working with Joe Pecorelli, the fish curator, the idea of buried treasure and ruins beneath the sea became a recurring theme, but particularly in the Pacific tank where 7m-high Easter Island Heads were installed.

But the key to the design was the circulation – how to guide visitors from one exhibit to the next and what environment to create. We felt that the fantasy of underwater observation had to be maintained and a dark, cool space, uncluttered with gimmicks was the best environment, allowing the existing building’s massive brick walls and arches to play their part.

We decided to take people from the highly lit entrance hall through a series of dark blue spaces at ground floor level, down to the basement, for their first taste of the aquarium – the freshwater stream. A first glimpse of the upper level of the Atlantic tank takes you round to freshwater fish displays and a sudden view of the sharks in the Pacific tank. The very nature of the size of the building provides a breathing space between each set of exhibits with discreet painted signage on the dark blue and green walls and ceilings serving to guide the visitor to the next display.

It seemed a good way of telling the ocean story to move from freshwater and largely European fish to the tropics and more exotic species. Passing down another level into the depths of County Hall and beneath the level of the Thames, the fish become more colourful and the tanks smaller, but more plentiful.

The end of the journey moves through the tropical rainforest, with sound effects and exotic displays.

Throughout the scheme, the lighting proved to be vital as the fish must at all times remain healthy and meticulously cared for. The illumination of the fish themselves also requires constant flexibility. All lights above the tanks are mounted on rails and brackets that can allow movement and easy replacement of fittings.

The life support systems are also fundamental and experts were called in at the outset to design the extensive plant which is needed – which stretches the full length of the Aquarium in the vaults next to the Thames.

But in my opinion, the most fascinating part of the story is how the London Aquarium was built. Shirayama has an endearing courage – it believes in the Japanese way of gathering together a “family” of people who it trusts and who trust it. There was no large contractor building the Aquarium, but a team of individuals all, apart from RHWL, directly employed by the Japanese and every one directly responsible ultimately to London managing director, Mac Okamoto.

The system worked well – the Aquarium was completed on time and on budget.

Credits

Client: Shirayama Shokusan, Osaka, Japan

Architect: RHWL Partnership

Electrical & Lighting: Peter Aicheson of

Shirayama Shokusan

Structural: Waterman Partnership and

Shirayama Shokusan

Design appraisal

It is obviously a mammoth task to undertake the restoration of a building like County Hall.

Given that it was once home to the GLC, and that a new London authority is set to return to power, it seems a little odd to place London’s “first” aquarium experience in its vaults. However the River Thames setting adds relevance, and stranger things have happened at sea.

We arrived early one Sunday morning to avoid the crowds and see what my six- and four-year-old children made of this 25m aquatic extravaganza.

The entrance, which was thankfully crowd-free, is simple but stylish. Large glass panels with etched graphics work well and face the Thames-side walk. Obviously contemporary, they none-the-less fit in well with the facia of the grade II listed County Hall.

Once inside, the atmosphere hits you as you walk along gradually sloping tunnels towards the tanks. Sound effects and lighting are used to create an under-the-sea atmosphere, and although my four-year-old son was reluctant at first (frightened by the noise rather than subdued lighting), he was soon captured by the wonderful fish.

Circulation seems well planned, but is hindered by the signs which don’t appear to be working. Internal signs are kept to a minimum, and the understated white triangle devices on the dark walls aren’t obvious enough as the venue has had to resort to photocopied arrows.

While minimalists would appreciate the uncluttered interiors, information panels are also understated and often tucked away or too high for children to read, with graphics which are too small.

The fast-moving stream in the first section, European freshwater, worked well as an introduction to the aquarium’s “oceans of the world”, though information panels weren’t obvious.

Soon after, we reached the huge Atlantic tank, with a vast array of species from sharks to stingrays and eels. There are several viewing points to fully appreciate the display.

The Pacific tank was even more stunning with its Easter Island-style replicas among the shoals of golden trevally, wobbegongs and sand tiger sharks.

The children were particularly impressed with the far more modest Indian Ocean tanks, displaying weird and wonderful sea life such as fox face rabbits and lion fish. Information panels were more obvious here, but again too high for the children to see.

Their real favourite, and a bright alternative to the dark tunnels, was the Touch Pool. The only truly interactive part of the aquarium, the Touch Pool features low-level troughs with an array of sea creatures which can be touched. Walls are brightly coloured with large sea creatures painted directly on to them, and a member of staff is on hand to provide information and keep a watchful eye should the crabs, mussels and starfish become prey to small fingers.

My daughter was thrilled that she had “held a starfish”, and even more impressed that she was able to stroke a “friendly ray” in the next section, The Beach.

But while the children loved standing on the decking and dipping into the large open tank containing the rays, I felt this was a missed opportunity to create a British beach setting. The deck flooring was fine, and a change to the dark rubber flooring elsewhere, but the sand and solitary deck chair display, and surrounding beach cabin fronts with fake broken windows were disappointing.

But the uncluttered theme prevailed, and we were soon swept through to the temperate waters, living corals and tropical fish with additional views into the Atlantic and Pacific tanks.

By the time we reached the rainforest, the final section, we had almost seen enough and didn’t quite take in what was on offer, despite impressive planting and the use of humidifiers to add to the atmosphere. Then we suddenly found ourselves in the chaos of Oceanic, the busy shop crammed full of souvenirs. Although the space is light, taking advantage of the wonderful windows overlooking the river, it is cramped and difficult to navigate. The Global café, accessed through a spacious hall, is better planned, has a contemporary feel and also capitalises on the fabulous views of the Thames.

As an aquarium attraction, the exhibits certainly do the talking and swimming, but there is little use of interactive technology or multi-media excepting a few small individual screens with buttons which didn’t seem to correspond to what was being shown.

Although the tanks are impressive and the overall design is sensitive and to a high standard, there is still an overriding sense that the contents are not entirely at home within a grade II listed building and that the concept at times has to fight against its environment.

In many ways it is refreshing to see a visitor attraction which does not entirely rely on buttons and flashing lights. The special effects, such as projected lighting, ocean-fresh aromas in the beach-zone and sound effects, are discrete enough not to impose on the displays. But to what extent will visitors expect more use of interactive new media? There’s certainly space in the walkways to incorporate educational or fun elements.

Presentations are held during the day, though we missed those and were too early for an exhibition on Jacques Cousteau which has just opened. There are also plans for a learning centre to be opened this autumn, and the aquarium’s commitment to preservation and attempt to create “the best possible environment” for the fish are definite plus points.

The architect has created an environment providing maximum visual impact for the impressive displays, but there were areas where tanks seem to have been added to fill a corner, and visitors are then reminded that they are in the basement of a magnificent Edwardian building which not so long ago was occupied, perhaps more appropriately, by the GLC.

INTERIORS STUDY

County Hall history

1922 County Hall opens; architect Ralph Knott

1923 becomes the home of the Greater London Council

1986 GLC disbanded

1988 Architect Skidmore Owings and Merrill and County Hall Development Group propose a scheme for a 450-bed hotel, a 3500-seat theatre and 350 flats

1990 County Hall Development Group goes into liquidation

1992 The London Residuary Body sells the Riverside building to Japanese developer Shirayama Shokusan

1992 Architect RHWL Partnership is appointed

1993 Planning application submitted for a 550-bed hotel, a leisure centre, riverside restaurants, cafés and bars

1994 Virgin Hotels Group joins forces with Shirayama. Planning application submitted for an aquarium

November 1994 Hotel plans put on hold – Virgin Hotels Group no longer involved

1995 Shirayama links up with Whitbread to develop a 200-bedroom Marriott Hotel and 300-bedroom Travel Inn

March 1997 The London Aquarium opens

Signage

The signage strategy for the London Aquarium was devised by the RHWL team with no input from an external graphic consultant. The illustrative directional signage was hand-painted on to the brickwork by Sign 2000, working from artwork and a brief from the architect. The company was also responsible for the external signage and directional behind-the-scenes signage for fire exits.

The back-lit information panels were supplied by Bristol company Natural Habitats, working closely with the fish curator, Joe Pecorelli, and RHWL. Natural Habitats also produced a series of videos, both for use at interactive stations and for continuous display, as well as a series of atmospheric sound effects that pick up the theme within each exhibition area.

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