Making Learning Fun

If you want to tour the Thinkery in one trip, you might need to sneak over to Austin’s new 36,340-sf, LEED Silver-certified children’s museum without a child. After three trips with a couple of 6-year-old boys, this reporter has yet to get to every corner of the facility, which is located in Austin’s developing Mueller district. Designed by Koning Eizenberg Architecture, with STG Design serving as architect of record and exhibits designed by Gyroscope, the iconic red building holds such a plethora of fun and fascinating interactive exhibits that several hours can easily be spent in any one of the diverse sections of the space. According to Thinkery Executive Director Mike Nellis, repeat visits were a key component of the re-envisioned museum’s plan, along with easier access, flexible space, and the ability to appeal to kids of all ages — “that, and our main mission,” Nellis said, “which is to equip and inspire the next generation of creative problem-solvers.”

The STEAM-based exhibits, which integrate science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics to provide inspiration to those young problem-solvers, are housed in a relatively simple, two-story building that sits like an elegant red warehouse on its site, about a 10-minute drive northeast of downtown. The building is made up of three connected boxes, one with a cantilevered second story jutting out over the covered entry. A “peeled back” perforated section of metal wall panel shades windows on the south-facing side, framing views of a park and playground, with the other three sides facing undeveloped areas that will soon host multi-use buildings in this growing New Urbanist subdivision. Feeble protests arose when the museum announced it was pulling up from central Austin, but Nellis said he and the organization had zero reluctance about leaving downtown. “It’s centrally located, conveniently accessible and it’s next to a park,” he said about the new site. It’s also now easily reached by communities on Austin’s east side — another major goal.

Large groups and families approach from dual entry points but meet in the same central lobby, which flows easily into several galleries distributed throughout the space where new exhibits and a few from the previous location keep kids continually engaged. Sections include: Innovators’ Workshop, a 2,500-sf gallery that focuses on making and creative problem-solving; Spark Shop, a selection of tools and materials that allow older children to experiment with advanced designs; Our Backyard, an outdoor courtyard with a gigantic, sculptural, universally-accessible climber, stream, and benches; Currents, a room full of devices for water play and exploration; Kitchen Lab, a combination of science lab and kitchen; Let’s Grow, where kids can play market or chef and learn about healthy eating choices while moving about in a fun, safe environment; a story nook and a protected, garden-themed space for infants and toddlers; and two changeable gallery spaces.

According to Gyroscope President Maeryta Medrano, the climber especially was a foray into unchartered territories. Designed using multiple computer models and real-time tests, the sculptural masterpiece was years in the making, as were some of the other exhibits unique to the Thinkery. “The fact that we could prototype such unique, open-ended experiences is a testament to how willing the

 museum team was to re-imagine what a children’s museum could be,” said Medrano of the project, which took six years to complete from concept to realization. “The building, while small, really gave us the opportunity to have one space leverage another.”

While Gyroscope has designed exhibits for more than a dozen children’s museums or science centers, this is Koning Eizenberg’s second successful design for a children’s museum; their first was an award-winning expansion and addition for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. The flow of visitors through the space and the best solution for making the building simple and contextual were always on the mind of Koning Eizenberg Principal Julie Eizenberg, AIA. “There’s something about Texas that’s very free-spirited,” said Eizenberg, who lives in Los Angeles. “We wanted to factor that into the design, while getting away from clichés about Texas. Also, this is a place about creative thinking — tools and making. The warehouse thing was a great fit, as was the red wrapper.” Jim Susman, AIA, principal at STG Design, agreed. “The building envelope has a prominence and a presence,” he said. Susman is particularly gratified to see the Thinkery completed. He was a member of the original design team for the first incarnation of the Austin Children’s Museum in 1987, and has since served on the board of directors. He said that the newly completed building is just the right balance of window spaces and solid walls, exposed metals, exposed concrete, and wood. “There are not a lot of fussy details,” he commented with pride. “We made it as honest — but as kid-proof — as we could.”

The building is environmentally sustainable. While solar panels on the roof provide on-site renewable energy, passive methods were also put in place. Materials such as wood used for a second-floor bridge, an undulating, slat-ceiling feature, main stair treads, and finishes were sourced and fabricated regionally. Building massing, retractable sunshades, and exterior fins shade windows from the sun. Non-potable water is used for landscape irrigation, and plants were chosen for their low water needs.

“I think the Thinkery has accomplished a whole change of mindset about what’s cool,” said Eizenberg. The surge in membership compared with that at the museum’s previous incarnation proves her point. In August of 2013, while still at the downtown location, the museum had a total of 2,700 member households; today, they have an estimated 12,000 members, which includes individual and family memberships. “Our biggest challenge now is learning how to manage our success,” said Nellis, who has increased staff substantially so that there are always people available to help visitors. “Often parents feel they have to have the answers,” said Eizenberg, “but here, the staff can help with that — not to have the answers, but to prompt the right kind of questions. The building is a backdrop for that kind of learning. And we’re all learning, all the time.”

Ingrid Spencer lives in Austin and is a contributing editor for Architectural Record.

Published in the July/August 2014 issue of Texas Architect.