by Anna BokovMar 21, 2023
Early childhood education research continues to support the idea and importance of developing tactile learning experiences. Instilling children with creative and critical problem-solving skills stems from a transformative approach to the method of learning. This often manifests as a seamless combination of STEM-centric and art-related spaces that encourage a more playful approach to the learning experience. The Bay Area Discovery Museum (BADM) in California, USA attempts a spatial experiment with this pedagogical philosophy. Designed and constructed by Olson Kundig, an American collaborative design practice, the BADM is located at the historical former WW1 military base Fort Baker, and overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. For Olson Kundig, now in its sixth decade of practice, this adaptive reuse project is part of the studio's expansive repertoire of cultural and museum projects, which also includes exhibition design.
In a conversation with STIR, design principal Alan Maskin goes into great detail about the design modulations and strategies employed by Olson Kundig to realise the Bay Area Discovery Museum. Maskin details the inception of the project and its five new permanent exhibits incorporating the latest research to create interactive environments. These include the Try It Studio, How Things Work, Tot Spot, and outdoor spaces such as the Gumnut Grove, and Lookout Cove.
Devanshi Shah: Could you tell us a bit more about the main concept of the master plan?
Alan Maskin: The main driver for the master plan was a transformation of the Bay Area Discovery Museum, which is housed in a former military encampment from WWI. Our conversations with BADM began with a revamp of one exhibit, then quickly pivoted when they realized that a major revision of the entire campus was in order. The former military site was underutilized for a long time before becoming a children’s museum in the 1980s. BADM’s founders had real foresight in securing this location at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge on Horseshoe Cove in San Francisco Bay. It would be impossible for a children’s museum to have access to that kind of real estate today, given the value of waterfront properties in the Bay Area.
The site is designated as a Cultural Landscape on the National Register of Historic Places, which limits the changes that can be made to building exteriors, so our challenge was to update those existing buildings by transforming their interiors. Phase 1 of implementing the master plan reimagines all the indoor and outdoor play spaces, spanning nine buildings and 170,000 square feet across interior and exterior experiences, and includes six new exhibits for children from infancy to their early teens. We also proposed a new entry and entry sequence in the master plan, which is not yet realized but may be included in a future phase of renovation.
Our design strategy for the exterior exhibits was to locate new elements in places that would encourage circulation through the entire site and guide visitors to different areas and opportunities that they may not have realized existed before. We were able to bring a real boat onto campus, Faith, which was sailed to the site and craned into position. Kids appreciate having access to the real thing, and that’s been one of the most popular new exhibits. We also created a climbing and exploration structure, Gumnut Grove, inspired by seeds falling from the eucalyptus trees on the site.
We were drawn to this project by the incredible site and the realization that kids never get to enjoy this kind of landscape, with extraordinary views of the bridge and the bay. BADM is a STEAM campus (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) and one of the few children’s museums with an early childhood education research division. They are constantly performing original research into aspects of learning and play in very young children, published by their Center for Childhood Creativity in partnership with universities in the Bay Area. I worked as an early childhood educator for 14 years before studying architecture, which is part of why Olson Kundig has such a commitment to creating strong design experiences for the youngest populations.
Devanshi: The interior and exterior are remarkably different. Could you tell us about the dialogue between the two?
Alan: The buildings on the BADM site were originally used for storage or as horse stables in the “quartermaster area” of the WWI encampment. These structures are very simple on the exterior and protected under the National Register of Historic Places, so we knew we would be able to make a few changes. We thought, if the campus seemed identical from the outside, then the inside of the buildings should open to reveal something like a geode – different and surprising. From an equity perspective, however, we could make every building accessible, so each building entry now includes a ramp.
The interiors were changed based on the content and experiences provided within, so the colours and textures used in each space are very different. There’s a fascinating interplay between buildings, though. In one space, the Try It Studio, we have a Fabrication Lab where kids are introduced to digital tools like 3D modelling; the Tot Spot was constructed using these same technologies. In How Things Work, we studied children’s drawings and drew inspiration from the way kids naturally draw in sections, with insides and outsides pictured at once. We played on that idea and made a 3D house where kids could see the insides of everything, creating a sense of curiosity about everyday objects, from a car in the garage to a piano to a toilet to a refrigerator.
Devanshi: How did the location and site context influence the structure?
Alan: There was a very direct relationship between the Golden Gate Bridge and the new project spaces. In How Things Work, every time we cut something in section we made it orange, the same colour of the bridge which is seen right out of the window. We also created ways to get children above ground level for an even better view. A future phase of construction could activate a currently unbuilt area in Lookout Cove. We proposed using the natural grade of the hill to add a series of slides and climbing challenges made of logs and rocks and other natural materials, inspired by the game Chutes & Ladders. Those kinds of experiences are developmental challenges disguised as play and help kids build their gross motor skills.
Devanshi: What are some of the key aspects you keep in mind when designing early childhood education spaces?
Alan: In our early years designing children’s museums, my team and I did a lot of research. We found many repetitive cliches, which reflected what adults felt kids wanted. Instead, we decided to ask kids directly and take their answers seriously. Now every time Olson Kundig designs a space for children, we engage them in drawing exercises to find out about their big ideas. Very often, those ideas are incorporated into the design and become the most popular and successful elements of the project. In this instance, we asked children to draw their ideas for Gumnut Grove, and the types of play experiences those drawings captured informed our design.
Working with the educators at the museum throughout the project was invaluable. They shared their pedagogy for learning environments and what they knew about executive function in children, which helped us let go of any notions we had about how literal the museum environments should be. Instead, we trusted kids’ abilities to fill in the blanks and play with abstraction. When they have the freedom to make up their own story or environment, children can transform a space into whatever they want or need it to be. We’re also drawn to a more natural material palette than you often find in spaces designed for children. We avoid things that are plastic or artificial or any toxic materials. I think kids can appreciate those design strategies as much as any adults.
Devanshi: Could you expand on how the scale of these projects differs? Considering their primary occupants, how do you accommodate the change in scale?
Alan: Our designs throughout the Bay Area Discovery Museum reflect children’s developmental stages. Tot Spot is for the very youngest guests, infants and toddlers. It’s ergonomic for their bodies and abilities. Throughout Tot Spot, the experiences encourage crawling, rolling over, pulling oneself up to stand, holding on while you walk – the very first gross motor behaviours of babies. In spaces where older kids can engage with them, we use scale and proportion to create different experiences; for example, an infant can’t climb a ladder but a four-year-old can. That scales all the way to the ladders and slides that give kids access to the rafters of the building in How Things Work.
Devanshi: What are some of the key design elements taken under consideration when designing the different segments (such as Tot Spot, Lookout Cove, Try-it Studio) in this project?
Alan: Each different area throughout the museum draws on the research done by the BADM educators about how kids learn STEAM concepts as well as our own experience designing spaces that engage kids and their families. Within Tot Spot, infants and toddlers get an age-appropriate STEAM introduction. In the bay and water room, a waterbed and play structure introduce different tactile sensations to invite touch and engagement. In the forest and habitat room, gently rolling landmasses create varying levels to explore, with spots where kids can poke through to orient themselves or observe others. Both rooms are united by a wall mural by artist Steven Valenziano. It’s painted in high contrast black and white – because very young children don’t experience colour the same way as adults or older kids – the mural also features animals and plants that are native to the area.
Our primary goal in How Things Work is for people of all ages to look beyond the surface of everyday objects in their lives and realize that each is an innovation in engineering and design. They see this in a flushing toilet, car, chimney flue, piano, refrigerator, and more, all sliced in half. Our hope is this will instill a curiosity about their pop-up toaster at breakfast, or how the electricity or plumbing in their house works. Imagining how things might work – and then figuring out how they do work – creates an environmental awareness of the “inner workings” that most people take for granted. We hope visitors leave curious about their lives in a new way.
In the Try It Studio and Think, Make, Try® Classroom, kids can engage with kinetic devices that explore cause and effect relationships or introduce sequencing skills that are actually a precursor to coding. Kids are prompted to solve problems using digital fabrication tools and to envision themselves as change-makers. Both spaces are designed to be incredibly adaptable, allowing the museum to host a range of activities and events here.
Gumnut Grove introduces a climbing activity area that allows older children to refine their gross motor skills and develop confidence in a safe environment. In Lookout Cove, we added Faith, which is a real, decommissioned fishing boat – at a real scale – that they can safely engage with and explore. Kids are fascinated by the real thing, but often the items they’re given to play with are facsimiles of something real, reduced to a mini-scale. As the primary user group, we wanted to treat children with respect and craft an experience that would be exciting and authentic.