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VOL. 132 | NO. 221 | Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Aquarium Proposal for Mud Island Resurfaces After Pyramid Pitch

By Bill Dries

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The plan for an aquarium at Mud Island River Park is not the first time an aquarium has been proposed on the city’s riverfront.

“It was an interesting beginning. I was disappointed at the time,” said Peter Chermayeff of the original aquarium concept for the Pyramid, which never got as far as renderings or a concept plan.

Chermayeff leads an eponymous architecture firm based in Andover, Massachusetts, which specializes in the design and construct of aquariums and related exhibits. His first major civic aquarium project was the National Aquarium in Baltimore in 1975. Since then, Chermayeff led the design and construction of the Lisbon Oceanarium in Lisbon, Portugal, the Genoa Aquarium in Genoa, Italy, and Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium among others. He’s also been involved in updates and renovations of many aquarium projects he and his firm designed and built.

In 2008, he teamed with Memphis architecture firm archimania on a general pitch to then-Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration that didn’t get very far.

The plan for an aquarium at Mud Island River Park that surfaced last month is from a group of planners who pitched an aquarium for the Pyramid nearly a decade ago. (archimania/Peter Chermayeff LLC/BWS&C)

Chermayeff and archimania are together again on the tentative Mud Island plan outlined by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland last month.

City Housing and Community Development director Paul Young unveiled a concept plan in October that would feature an aquarium on Mud Island’s south end, where the Gulf of Mexico replica is at the end of the River Walk, a scale model of the Mississippi River that has been a feature of the river park since it opened in the early 1980s. There would be another aquarium linked to the existing river museum.

It is part of a broader plan to link the south end of Mud Island to the Memphis mainland by a pedestrian bridge near Monroe Avenue where the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art would be located between Union Avenue and Monroe.

Chermayeff said the aquarium at the Gulf replica would be a “major statement” with connections between it and the other aquarium tied to the river museum.

“What I’ve been referring to as a necklace or a series of beads on a necklace, connecting back to the existing museum at the end of the tramway bridge,” he said. “That necklace of elements along the way is unique to the site and conceptually introduced to connect things together to animate the entire site, to relate to the entire existing Mud Island Mississippi River map of the park that is already there, but also to spread the experience to the public through the entire site.”

The “necklace” would also shorten the walk between different elements.

Chermayeff said the Gulf aquarium could include both saltwater and freshwater tanks to simulate the habitat there with a freshwater aquarium and tanks at the other end to simulate the river habitat.

Still to come are details about financing and the size of the aquarium’s elements.

“We have not yet determined exactly how many large tanks and large habitat spaces we feel can best be made. I think that’s subject to further study,” he said. “It’s right up there in terms of impact and powers of attraction with other aquariums that have tanks, for example, with over 1 million gallons.”

The centerpiece at both ends would ideally be large tanks for communities of animals.

The city is also working to create some kind of freshwater “institute” for the scientific and academic study of the Mississippi River as an ecosystem.

Chermayeff said that is unique and a recent trend seen in other aquariums outside the U.S., including the Lisbon aquarium, which has a foundation built around ocean conservation efforts.

He said the Memphis plan is innovative with “no exact precedent.”

Details are still to be worked out, as is the mix of public and private funding. Strickland has mentioned the possibility of the Memphis Zoo being involved in the aquarium in some way.

Calvin Anderson was among those involved in the 2008 proposal of an aquarium at the Pyramid.

The general idea was pitched along with other ideas for the Pyramid, which had been mothballed following the construction and opening of FedExForum in 2005. But Herenton’s administration decided the best adaptive reuse of the Pyramid would be as a super store for Bass Pro Shops with related attractions inside.

Although he is not involved in the new proposal, Anderson said the basic rationale then and now are similar.

“You had the layout of the Mississippi River on that space on Mud Island, you had the Pyramid sitting there on the water and you didn’t have an aquarium within the immediate 200-mile radius,” he said, noting that Chattanooga’s aquarium had been open for about 15 years at that point.

“The financing of it and the numbers are going to be important to run down. The design portion of it is going to be important.”

Conceptually, Anderson said it is something that could work “and be actually wildly successful. … I think you can see where there is a pathway for success with it.”

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