SHARKS! IN CONEY ISLAND
The New York Aquarium, managed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, just off the boardwalk on Coney Island is one of the city’s long-standing attractions. It has now gained a spectacular addition, the Donald Zucker and Barbara Hrbek Zucker Ocean Wonders: Sharks!.
An aquarium project presents unique challenges no matter what, but in the case of the Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit, the team faced a design with no standard details. “Each element of the project was distinct—almost every angle and curve, every measurement was custom and one-of-a-kind, not repeated anywhere else in the building,” says Tony Juhas, the project leader from the HOCHTIEF subsidiary Turner Construction Company.
Juhas is an experienced builder and project manager, but he didn’t come to the job with particular expertise in aquarium architecture. “This was my first aquarium,” he says, adding that he sought support from a variety of experts—including in-house expert William Flynn, a Turner employee who has been working and consulting on aquarium projects since the 1970s—as he and the project team faced the unique engineering challenges of building a walk-in aquarium. What’s more, this showcase project, which sits adjacent to the famous Coney Island Boardwalk, was commissioned to deliver ultra modern architecture in addition to a rich habitat for the ocean’s top predators.
The project has succeeded on both counts. The three-story, 158 million U.S. dollar Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit boasts 5,000 square meters of exhibition and education space as well as a seawater basin with a capacity of 2.3 million liters. The architecture of the extension evokes waves and whirlpools. Its facade is covered with a shimmer wall—33,000 small aluminum tiles, created by the artist Ned Kahn, each one glittering separately as it’s buffeted by the wind, suggesting the surface of the ocean, or the scales on the side of a fish. When darkness falls, the facade is illuminated, creating a stunning new eyecatcher on the New York waterfront.
The interior of this shark temple, which houses nine aquariums in all, has hardly any straight lines. This creates an interesting experience for observers—but it also created challenges for Juhas and his team. To enable visitors to walk through an artificial coral reef between swarms of fish or wander through a shipwreck surrounded by weaving three-meter-long sharks, the design called for gigantic curved acrylic windows—every single one of which is a different shape. The large transparent pieces, which were made by a specialist company in Colorado, had to be installed before the floor above them could be constructed. In terms of statics, the windows of aquariums become load-bearing walls. The pressure of the water masses is enormous and it must be carefully calculated. In addition, special water-resistant concrete formulas and reinforced steel frameworks are required. Beyond these considerations, the shark aquarium also has a challenging “inner life,” because its residents must be kept healthy and contented. The temperature and water quality must be fine-tuned for approximately 115 different species of fish.
FROM HABITAT TO HOME
It takes a year to transform a watertight structure made of concrete and acrylic glass into a living marine environment. The aquarium is first filled with freshwater to test its water-tightness. Next, it is cleaned with special chemicals, including muriatic acid—which buffers the pH of the concrete habitat elements—and then filled with seawater and inoculated with bacteria that must be left alone to multiply for several weeks. Only then can fish and other species be introduced into the aquarium, starting with the smallest and least aggressive. Larger and larger species are then added gradually over a period of three months, so that the new neighbors can all get accustomed to one another. Introducing the sharks is the very last step in the process. They are transported to the building—and introduced into knee-deep water manually by experienced animal trainers and veterinarians. It took a decade to plan and construct this new attraction for New York City—much longer than originally expected. That’s because Hurricane Sandy struck in October 2012, shortly before the groundbreaking ceremony was to take place. The hurricane inflicted tremendous damage on the construction site and the existing buildings of the New York Aquarium. In fact, Turner Logistics provided much needed generators to keep the aquarium open after the storm. Time was lost, not only because of the cleanup work but also because the existing fish in the aquarium had to be taken care of. The animals are always first at the aquarium.
Today, six years after the devastating hurricane, nearly the entire campus of the New York Aquarium has been restored. When Tony Juhas is asked to recall his most exciting memory, it’s hard for him to decide. “There were various situations...” he ruminates. “Setting in the acrylic windows, the first time we filled the tanks with water, and filling the aquariums with fish were all important moments, but now, since the grand opening, I think the most exciting moment was seeing kids and adults alike enjoying the exhibit. That really provided a sense of accomplishment.”