Fin shui: Designing exhibits for the New York Aquarium and city zoos

new york aquarium
Sue Chin and Jon Dohlin at the construction site of a new shark and marine exhibit at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium.
Credit: Bess Adler/Metro

Sand tiger sharks, rough tail rays, sea turtles and thousands of schooling fish have to wait just a few more years before swimming into their new Coney Island digs.

But for designers behind the New York Aquarium’s upcoming “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit, creating a functioning marine environment is far from a simple move.

“It has gone through multiple versions,” said Sue Chin, vice president of planning and design and chief architect at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the aquarium and four zoos in the city. “The idea for sharks came up about 10 years ago, but this current design really evolved over the last 3 years.”

Superstorm Sandy, along with funding and other delays, continued to push back the $157.1 million project’s groundbreaking until last month.

Expected to open in 2016, the shark exhibit is among the more ambitious projects coordinated by Chin for the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the only organizations in America with its own design department for zoos.

But most designs — be it a shark tank or tiger habitat — can still take years to put together. Architects, designers, scientists and curators may collaborate on project concepts for several months before specific plans are made.

Chin and her roughly 30-person team start with species research.

“Designing for a gorilla is very different from designing for a bird of paradise or a boa constrictor,” Chin said. “Every species has very different needs.”

The aquarium’s director, Jon Dohlin, said that guest experience must be balanced with animal well-being throughout the design process.

“They have to be homes and, in the case of aquatic animals, they have to be the actual environment that these animals live in,” Dohlin said.

Chin said that she and her team also hope to inspire visitors with their designs.

“The ultimate goal is to get the public excited about same thing that we’re excited about, which is these beautiful animals, the habitats that they live in and the vulnerabilities and challenges that face them out in the wild,” she said.

And while New Yorkers can find images of sharks and fish online, Chin still sees value in viewing them up close at the aquarium when the new exhibit finally opens.

“There’s a different connection to be made when you’re standing right there in front of another living being and that’s our goal,” Chin said.

Follow Anna Sanders on Twitter @AnnaESanders


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