After nearly a decade in the making, Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences is set to open this week – and Inhabitat recently took a sneak peak inside the incredible new institution! A crowning achievement of sustainable architecture, the Academy will house 38,000 live animals and is on track to receive LEED platinum. It is currently the only institution in the world to feature an aquarium, a natural history museum, a living rainforest, a planetarium, and world-class research and education programs – all housed under a 2.5 acre green roof. Read on for a tour of the museum’s many splendors!

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In designing the revitalized Academy, Renzo Piano sought to distance it from traditional museums, which he saw as “kingdoms of darkness”. This effort is immediately evident upon entering the Academy’s doors, where one is presented with an immense inner courtyard that suffuses the entire structure with light. An undulating skylight ceiling boasts complex concavities and hanging panels that distribute daylight, while an extremely efficient natural ventilation system effectively balances the entire structure’s disparate climate zones.

From the foyer we ascended several staircases and were presented with the Academy’s expansive 2.5 acre green roof. Its rolling series of hills and valleys are modeled upon San Francisco’s natural landscape, and the roof’s native plants absorb 90-98% of the building’s rainfall. All around the roof’s edges runs an encircling halo of photovoltaic cells, providing 60kW of electricity – enough to supply 5-10% of the structure’s energy needs.

A transparent four-story dome in the Museum’s east wing houses the Academy’s stunning “Rainforests of the World” exhibit, complete with flying birds, insects, butterflies, and frogs hidden amidst the verdant green vegetation. Conceived as a “celebration of life”, the exhibit will grow and change as its ecosystem develops – in three to five years the dome’s flora will enshroud it beneath an ethereal rainforest canopy.

From the peak of the rainforest one descends down a glass elevator into the Academy’s extensive aquatic exhibits. An incredible acrylic tunnel serves as the gateway, exposing the inner workings of the Amazonian flooded forest.

The Academy’s Philippine aquarium is home to the largest indoor coral reef exhibit in the world. The 212,000 gallon tank is flush with over two thousand species of fish, and the reef was grown entirely from pieces of coral that were either cultivated or purchased from other aquariums.

Incredible architecture aside, perhaps the most stunning aspect of the revitalized institution is it’s steadfast commitment to a vital, living, and changing study of life. The California Academy of Sciences is a “natural future institution” that looks forward and embraces life rather than cataloging it away in the dark halls of distant history. As executive director Greg Farrington remarked, the museum seeks to explore “how we got here, and how are we going to find a way to stay”.

Photos by Mike Chino. For more, check out Inhabitat’s Flickr feed >

+ California Academy of Sciences