Observing life in a fish bowl

It was a bit of a dog's life for the dolphins at the new National Aquarium in Baltimore, but the 2 million-plus people who've come here in the last year or so couldn't have had a better introduction to the world of water.

The design by the Cambridge, Mass., architectural firm of Cambridge 7 lets visitors do so much more than eyeball fish - and offers the waterfront site so much more than another structure would - that one can almost excuse the toll it took on its endearing denizens.

The aquarium's dolphin centerpiece certainly made architectural and pedagogic sense. Visible from the multiple levels of the wraparound circulation path, the dolphins delighted viewers.

That didn't help the dolphins, of course. Alas, they symbolize the conflict between man and beast - hosts and guests, as one book calls it - in so many places that serve more-landbound mammals, too.

On the one hand, experts claimed that the dolphins were ''green'' and not ready for life inside a dim, if dramatically designed, fish tank. Another few months would have readied them, some insisted. Instead, a construction failure compounded their trouble in acclimating.

On the other hand, even those of us accustomed to the human race would be alarmed by the flash bulbs, the screaming kids, the squawking, echoing sounds that assault the viewer here.

The dolphins have thus been shipped off to Florida to recover from the ''stress'' of life in a fish bowl, the aquarium says; are on the mend; and due back, it hopes, in a more relaxed state.

The visitor indoctrinated with the amazingly anthropomorphic view of these strange beasts in ''Day of the Dolphins'' must wonder: What is life like without a bit of sky and sunshine? What price to the inhabitants to give us a glimpse of their fins and feathers?

Still, whatever the National Aquarium is like to live in, its first year of use has proved it a spectacular place to visit: a spectacle of light and color, of architecture, and, of course, water.

Architect Peter Chermayeff, who directed the project, conceived of a linear tour of underwater and above-water ''events,'' events broken down in an arresting fashion both intellectually and visually. Small events or exhibits are punctuated by big spaces, architecturally. The general (sharks that swim by) and the specific (the local watery topography of Baltimore) are interspersed.

A vast amount of information is engagingly presented in 136,000 square feet of space, half of which goes for mechanical and administrative functions.

The visitor approaches the concrete museum up a somewhat awkward escalator, 18 feet off the ground to allow for these mechanical services. Once inside, however, the standing array of blue water tubes, or the neon wave attached to the wall, send you on your way.

The trip culminates on the top floor with the inspired lunacy of a rain forest inside two triangular peaks of glass. From the outside these look like sailing ships, from within like two atriums. (Again, the trouble of bringing outside living things inside literally bugged the place; the last, lingering ant - one hopes - from the infestation that brought insects from the imported plants into file drawers and secretaries' desks crept up the handrail on a recent gray February day.)

In between there are bays that offer exhibits tracing water from land to sea, a breakdown into colored panels that offer, say, an array of stunningly photographed ''animal eyes,'' and exhibits that divide the water-based life by categories of activity - ''Schooling,'' ''Evolving''; and the standard, but necessary, hands-on section. Here children can walk through sand or fondle an upside-down crab.

''All life is unified by water'' is the message, and the medium reinforces it. If the ambiance is as striking as the subject matter, one can ''excuse'' its delights by their diligence in attracting visitors to return, and return again, to absorb the more cerebral matter.

One feels the omission of a sense of the sea outside, here as in the firm's Boston aquarium. In this case, however, Cambridge 7 provided the room with a view of the water, but the aquarium set it aside for other uses.

From the rain forest, one descends on a still more dramatic ramp, with wonderful sights and spaces, to the rather limp exhibition of human explorations in the sea. This last might have served to enlist the sense of human-water, people-planet linkages that are the social rationale for the place.

Nonetheless, a section of graphics underscores the deeper message of the aquarium's distractingly attractive environs as finale.''The ocean dies invisibly,'' a panel by Wesley Marx declares. ''Reverence for nature is compatible with willingness to accept responsibility for a creative stewardship of the earth'' is the offering from Rene Dubos. And, perhaps most touchingly, David Brower's inscription declares, ''We don't inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.''

The aquarium not only hopes to do that within but without.

The $21.3 million project was financially feasible because it served as a linchpin to draw crowds to Baltimore.

''It's a magnet, a way to attract people, a tool by which you can rejuvenate an area of the city,'' as Bobby C. Poole, project architect, puts it. So it has proved.

(Again, in the asides that typify this animated project, Poole was noted as only one of the name-linked workers on a building raised by a Whiting, a second Poole, a Pollock, and a Chesapeake Dolphin.)

More to the point, the aquarium combined with Harborplace, a Rouse development designed by Benjamin Thompson, to surround the refurbished inner lagoon with inviting architecture.

Unfortunately, other nodes, if you will, around the bay don't share either the aquarium's spirited shape or the low, human scale of Harborplace. The auto-age Pratt Street which slices by the project separates the new city from the old, and the inevitable Hyatt and Trade Center towers add to neither the walking scale nor sense of place.

Still, on brisk or balmy days, the aquarium not only contributes its bit to the exposition of the natural environment but to the built one as well.

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