An Experience Of Captivity

Water trickles among the trees, seeking with its unerring instinct for declivity the drains and sumps hidden in the forest floor. Water in its heaviness pools in the lichen-lined hollows, or, crystalline, falls as snow on refrigerated rocks. Then the path spirals between walls of green water, into the cool darkness sidelit by the pale glow of light passing through its translucent, bubble-flecked depths.

Not the least impressive thing about the Ring of Fire Aquarium, which opened last week in Osaka, Japan, is the way in which architect Peter Chermayeff has managed to use water not just as a medium in which to grow fish, but as an architectural element in its own right. With less success, he uses fire, because the theme for this aquarium is the Pacific Ocean and its shores, the "Ring of Fire" that includes most of the world's active volcanoes. Lava, being a problematic material for public display, is symbolized by an array of gas flares on the outside walls and, within the exhibit itself, by squiggles of red neon. Water, real water, is everywhere, beginning as a trickle in the Japanese forest, the first of eight habitats designed to illustrate the various coastal ecosystems of the Pacific.

From Japan the visitor proceeds clockwise around the Pacific, past the Aleutian Islands; Monterey Bay, Calif.; the Gulf of Panama; an Ecuadoran rain forest; Antarctica, New Zealand's Cook Strait, and Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Then the visitor descends curving ramps toward the great central cruciform tank that represents the pelagic Pacific. Here, one enters a world that seems bounded by water, a dreamlike region in which (once some temporary problems with water clarity are cleared up) one will be able to look through a tank to others beyond, separated by the silhouettes of the visitors moving in their dark tunnels of air.

Overhead, the rays glide sinuously; the schooling mackerel dart from an inquisitive shark, a triumph of instinct over the observed fact that the well-fed predators rarely trouble to eat their fellow specimens. Giant Japanese spider crabs, squat ting on intricately articulated limbs as long as an arm, peer uncomprehendingly at their own bizarre reflections. A whale shark, 14 feet long but a harmless plankton feeder, materializes out of the gloom, swimming with the ponderous dignity of a 1968 Oldsmobile looking for a parking space outside church. This is an aquarium in the Mystical/Romantic style which Chermayeff's firm, Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc., pioneered in 1962 with its first project, Boston's New England Aquarium. Chermayeff, just out of Harvard at the time, felt the need to go beyond the two existing types of aquariums--the fish-in-a-box style of innumerable tanks organized by species, like a thousand dentists" waiting rooms under one roof, and the marine theme parks in which dolphins dragged around dogs on a raft. It was in Boston that Cambridge Seven first applied the ideas that have become its trademarks: an architecture of brooding shadows and portentous curves; displays arranged in a sequence that makes emotional, if not necessarily taxonomic, sense, and habitats designed to appeal to the terrestrial mammals in the audience.

Bravura touch: From the outside, Chermayeff's new project is rectangular in plan, its four sides facing in real space the four points of the compass--a scheme whose purity is unfortunately compromised by the covered glass bridge that connects the aquarium to its separate lobby building; a conventional seaport tourist mall is nearby. The re-creations of the eight coastal habitats occupy positions in the building corresponding to their actual locations around the Pacific--another bravura touch of exceedingly modest real significance. The base is of blue tile (with a large-scale mural by Chermayeff's brother Ivan, a New York graphic designer) surmounted by red glass and another Cambridge Seven trademark asymmetrical glass walls and roofs. It is an effective building, but--compared, say, to the soaring greenhouse-capped National Aquarium in Baltimore, another Cambridge Seven project--an oddly timid one.

For Americans, of course, there is something pregnant in the very notion of an aquarium in Japan, one of the few societies that still treats whales as a source of meat and not just poetic speculation about alien forms of intelligence. There are aquariums in Tokyo, of course: a rather primitive one at Ueno Zoo, which at one time had fish (at least one fish, anyway) in a tank so small that it could fit only diagonally, and the modern, well-designed Tokyo Sea Life Park. Chermayeff is as ardent an environ mentalist as ever designed a shopping mall. Not only is he against eating marine mammals, but he favors occasionally changing the contours of their tanks "to give them a more interesting sonic environment and a better experience of captivity." There are gentle environmental messages scattered through the Ring of Fire, but none that might be insulting to its owners (a consortium of Japanese businessmen and the City of Osaka) and visitors. Nevertheless Chermayeff hopes it will be more than just a show, that it will be "an invitation to Japan to do more than celebrate the esthetics of nature [and] begin to participate in its protection." By teaching respect for the oceans, he hopes, it will give all of us a better experience of captivity--and what higher goal could there be for architecture?

Not every city can have a great art museum, but for $40 million or so any place can have a first-rate aquarium, even if it has no closer connection to the sea than, say, Chattanooga, Tenn.--where another Cambridge Seven project, the Tennessee Aquarium, is scheduled to open in 1992. In an earnest quest for relevance, the focus here will be on riverine ecology and the cove forests of the western Appalachians, which boast, according to architect Peter Chermayeff, more than 300 indigenous species of fish, most of them considerably less than a foot long.

Not all the new aquariums i have to stretch quite so far l to reach the sea. The Texas State Aquarium opened just this month at Corpus Christi, with, among its other exhibits, a fine tribute to the ecology of offshore oil and gas platforms. Later this summer, New Orleans's Aquarium of the Americas is scheduled to open, promising views of the "sharks, tarpon, amberjack and other exotic fish naturally attracted to the legs of an oil rig." And there's more: a Caribbean reef (bonnethead sharks, among others), an Amazon rain forest ("schools of piranha ... 15-foot anaconda snakes and poison arrow frogs") and a Mississippi bayou exhibit (alligators, of course).

Some of the new exhibits eschew bloodthirstiness. Later this year the first major addition to the venerable Shedd Aquarium in Chicago will be an "Oceanarium" devoted mostly to whales, seals and dolphins featuring "educational presentations of the natural behaviors of marine mammals"--as distinguished from the Stupid Fish Trick school of marine exhibition in which seals play patriotic songs on tuned bicycle horns.