01 October 2007

Up on the roof

When the family and I walked in Golden Gate Park this weekend, we took a path that brought us right up to the fence that surrounds the new California Academy of Sciences. Even on a Sunday morning, construction workers were busy on the facade and roof. It looked as if the plant-covered roof, or "living roof," had been finished. It is an amazing project, with dozens upon dozens of trays containing grasses and flowers arranged to form the massive domes that rest on top of the building.

I've always liked how this roof and the de Young just across the Music Concourse suggest two ways of responding to nature in the park. At the Academy, Renzo Piano's living roof is a more literal way of making a building more natural and green. On the facade of the de Young, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron tried to replicate in copper the dappling effect of sunlight filtering through the trees in the park.

According to a promotional booklet put out by one of the firms working on the living roof (Rana Creek), grasses, sedges and rushes play an important role in the project and the domes are being planted with red fescue, Idahoe fescue, June grass, as well as Spreading rush, Foothill sedge and Blue eyed grass.

The architects, landscape architects, and environmental planners involved in the project argue that this planting will provide a habitat for bees and butterfiles, reduce sound, improve air quality, collect storm water, and reduce the temperature of the roof.

But it is the symbolic quality of grass and other plants on the living roof that seems most important. Grass often signifies a certain wildness out of human control--that nature is taking back parts of the urban landscape. Just rows of flowers would not do the trick. The living roof looks as if seeds from the grasses of the park had blown upwards and taken root on the top of the new Academy.

(Image from SFGate)

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