The new building sticks out over the Boardwalk, jutting toward the water, its facade wrapped in shimmery aluminum panels that move, like schools of fish, with the ocean breeze. The rippling panels join the clattery Cyclone, screaming teenagers, scent of suntan lotion and swarms of sea gulls picking at scraps of hot dog buns.
Coney Island’s latest attraction, “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!,” opens Saturday at the New York Aquarium. Go see it. It’s edifying and fun, an ideal excuse, if you should need one, to grab the kids and head for the beach — and it also happens to illustrate the difference architecture makes, in this case to residents in one of the city’s most underserved communities and to a neighborhood of honky-tonk amusement parks and oceanfront.
For years, where the Aquarium met the Boardwalk there used to be a blank stretch of wall. The institution’s 14-acre campus hid behind that wall, turning its back to the beach. Amid the freak shows and flashing lights, it was a charming, earnest, dated outlier, a little like an aging middle school on the Vegas strip. You could smell the salt air if you watched the sea lions in the Aquarium’s Aquatheater or before you entered Conservation Hall to check out the rays at Glover’s Reef.
But you couldn’t even see the Atlantic.
Then the Atlantic came to the Aquarium with Sandy. It invaded via Coney Island Creek. The seawater surged through vents and ducts, swamping basements, knocking out electricity and mechanical equipment, including all the pumps and emergency generators that kept the 12,000 or so fish and marine mammals alive.
A heroic effort by the Aquarium salvaged 85 percent of the collection. But the damage was done. More than half the campus was left in shambles. The storm hit just days before ground was to have been broken on “Ocean Wonders.” The idea for it had been around for years. George W. Bush hadn’t completed his first term as president when the New York Post announced “titanic” plans for a new shark exhibit. At the time, the Aquarium’s resident sand shark, Bertha, was 40ish. She was expected to move in.
Bertha died a decade ago.
Now, six years after Sandy, much of the campus is still years from reopening. But the shark display is finally completed. Clad in nocturnal gray, precast concrete, the $146 million, 57,500-square-foot pavilion looks a bit like a World War II battleship, marooned on the beach. Those rippling aluminum panels — some 33,000 of them — simulate shiny mylar ribbons, tying the new building up in bows.The ribbons coil around two Guggenheim-like towers. At night, the whole thing is lighted blue, making the building a kind of animated billboard, competing with the Wonder Wheel on the Coney Island skyline.
Ned Kahn, a California artist, devised the panels. Susan Chin, chief architect and vice president of planning and design for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the Aquarium, oversaw the project. She collaborated with the Portico Group architects and exhibit designers from Seattle and the New York architecture firm Edelman Sultan Knox Wood.
Maybe their biggest move, architecturally speaking, was to break through that wall separating the Aquarium from the beach. Where “Ocean Wonders” breaches the boardwalk, a garden with benches now nestles on one side of the building, a cafe with shaded tables, on the other. They’re advertisements for the Aquarium and useful amenities, seducing Coney Island visitors and residents toward what had been a barren stretch of the Boardwalk.
The overall effect makes the Aquarium more of a visible, welcoming presence and neighbor. Four out of five visitors to the Aquarium, it turns out, come from within a 10-mile radius, meaning most come from Brooklyn. A large share of those Brooklyn visitors comes from Coney Island, one of the city’s poorest communities.
The Aquarium has always been more than a tourist site for them. It is an educational tent pole and source of pride. It teaches children science and connects them to the sea, which for Coney Islanders is their backyard. Improving the Aquarium is as much about civic equity as it is about fortifying against rising seas in a city where progress on both fronts can often seem inexplicably slow and political.
As Jon Forrest Dohlin, the Aquarium’s director, puts it, “Ocean Wonders” is not just a long overdue upgrade for the institution. It’s also “a bridge to the community,” which deserves no less.
Inside, the exhibit features 115 species sharing 784,000 gallons of water. There are kite-shaped cownose rays, bluntnose rays and roughtail rays. There are whitespotted bamboo sharks and brownbanded bamboo sharks. There are wobbegongs — also sharks, sometimes called “the ambush kings” —and loggerhead sea turtles, along with clearnose skates, little skates and smooth dogfish. The building is, in effect, a huge life support system for diverse animals, which also accommodates people.
Starting Saturday, thousands of those people will no doubt crowd in, sharks being to aquariums what lions are to zoos and Picasso is to art museums. Just in case, “SHARKS!” is plastered above the front door in five-foot-high letters, which light up at night.
I suppose if your competition is Scream Zone and Thunderbolt, nuance becomes a relative concept.
I remember the pokey old shark display. This one stresses timely eco-consciousness, introducing visitors to shark habitats, explaining how critical sharks are to the ocean’s food chains and ecologies, debunking myths about the danger sharks pose to people while documenting, in occasionally graphic detail, the threats people pose to sharks via overfishing and pollution.
The narrow, snaking layout suggests an underwater landscape carved by water. It starts with an eye-opener: a 40-foot tunnel smack through a huge tank filled with fish from the Great Barrier Reef and Fiji. Zebra sharks and black-tipped reef sharks hover overhead, as if floating in midair.
Some 26 species of sharks, you may be surprised to learn, live in the New York area. They inhabit the Hudson Canyon, off the Jersey Shore, which is the size of the Grand Canyon. They populate shipwrecks like the U.S.S. San Diego, off Long Island. They’re in the waters right off Coney Island. The exhibition is mostly devoted to these local places, ending with a 600,000-gallon, kidney-shaped tank that simulates the canyon’s edge, with the ocean drifting off into darkness.
Past the exit, an outdoor ramp inclines visitors toward the roof of the building where the Atlantic suddenly spreads out below. You can see Luna Park in one direction, Brighton Beach in the other, and search for some of the marine wildlife you just saw in the diamond-speckled waves, sharks included.
The architectural point is clear: Sharks aren’t just movie stars and aquarium attractions.
They’re also our neighbors — as much a part of Coney Island as the roller coasters and summer dreams.
The New York Aquarium
Surf Avenue and West Eighth Street, Brooklyn; 718-265-3474, nyaquarium.com.
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