If you’ve ever been inspired by the peaceful undulations of jellyfish or taken in an intricate underwater landscape at your local aquarium, you likely have John Christiansen to thank.
The vice president of construction at EHDD Architecture, Christiansen is responsible for the design of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a structure that would go on to inspire a generation of aquarium designers and the many visitors who experienced the spaces they created.
Built sat down with this legend of contemporary aquarium design and construction to learn more about his groundbreaking approach and the design and engineering challenges of creating these unique spaces.
A scientific background
An avid diver, Christiansen’s entree into the world of aquarium design came from an unexpected beginning: a background in marine biology.
“I went to work for the Monterey Bay Aquarium when they were in the middle of their initial construction, and basically got into doing aquarium design, project management and doing lots of different projects in various places,” Christiansen said.
He was surprised to discover how well his background suited him for the challenges of his new position. “You get pretty much everything as a biologist,” Christiansen said. “Chemistry, physics, mathematics—all of which go very well with engineering and design. In high school I had taken drafting. And because of my background as a biologist, I had been able to see animals in their environment, which helped me understand what we needed to do to actually make it possible for them to survive in their exhibits.”
Christiansen said that once his design process began, he was able to draw on real-world experience working with animals in captivity to create species-specific designs. “I understood animals not just in their environment,” Christiansen said, “but also from several years working in the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the husbandry department, in the big tanks.”
This hands-on background gave Christiansen a unique insight into the work that goes on behind the scenes of an aquarium—an insight that he said informs the decisions he makes as a designer. “I may be the only person who’s actually ever worked in an aquarium at all levels,” he said. “Design, maintenance, husbandry—and all that experience definitely influences me. It’s not just about building things for the public and for the animals. It’s building things that will actually be durable and resilient to change over time.”
How does Christiansen create such spectacular species-specific spaces? It all starts with environment.
“If you’re doing something that no one has ever kept before, you normally start looking at what’s the environment the animal lives in,” Christiansen said. “When you’re doing new species, you have to be prepared that things are not necessarily going to go right. It takes a lot of resources and a lot of investment in time in trying things before you really know what works.”
Christiansen experienced this process firsthand when he built the first jellyfish exhibit for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “The first time we did a jellies exhibit at Monterey Bay Aquarium back in the late ’80s, the marketing department said, ‘No one’s ever going to come see jellies,” he recalled. “Wrong. With even a small tank of jellies, the stay time on [the exhibit] was equal to the kelp forest tank, a 300,000 gallon exhibit, or the otters.”
But getting to jellyfish success took time and effort. “Before construction started, I was doing blue water research diving 1,000 miles offshore off California and looking at jellies in their real world, and just really starting to understand that’s the world they live in,” Christiansen said.
Once he felt he understood the environment, the work of recreating it on a small scale began. “If you look at what’s happening in jellyfish tanks, you see that the animals are basically going around in circles,” Christiansen said. “The tanks are designed to create a water flow barrier so they can’t stay in one location and get stuck in a corner, so that their tentacles don’t tangle or get sucked down the drain. It’s manipulating the space to address the pieces of the animal’s environment that they really need. It becomes a very careful process to figure out what you need and be flexible enough that you can change it.”
Blending human and animal design needs
When asked how he balances the needs of the animal residents of the spaces he designs and the thousands of humans who pass through to observe them, Christiansen was adamant about where his priorities lay.
“There is no balancing,” he said. “The thing that comes first is the animals. If you try and design an exhibit for animals where you’re going to offset what the animals need for what the public wants, you’re going to end up just replacing animals.”
That said, Christiansen’s animal-first approach does make space for a considerable attention to logistics on behalf of their human visitors.
“On the public side, visitor flow is very important,” Christiansen said. “There’s hours and hours and hours of discussion about all those aspects every time you do an aquarium. What’s the pacing of the exhibit? Where do your big hits fall along the way? Do you even know what your big hits are going to be?”
Adding to the challenge is the mixed nature of the groups that aquariums tend to attract. “Places that get a lot of small children and parents with strollers have a completely different dynamic than ones that get a little bit older kids or older adults,” Christiansen said. “You have to start planning experiences for all levels, but really focus on the demographic that particular facility attracts.”
But as difficult as these conversations can be, for Christiansen they’re also part of what makes aquarium design so fun. “That, to me, is the best part of the aquarium project,” he said. “Brainstorming with people and pulling in the husbandry people on one side, the exhibit designers on another, our people on the third side, thinking about the public spaces. That’s really where the fun in these projects are—is that collaboration. Because with aquarium projects, it’s all collaboration.”