FOR decades, kids have visited The Children's Museum here and have been encouraged to explore and imagine. Ever since the "hands-on" concept took precedence over behind-the-glass-case viewing in progressive children's museums, the Boston institution has tried to stay in the forefront by designing exhibits that entertain as well as educate.
As part of that effort, the 80-year-old city museum is embarking on an ambitious $10-million expansion project that museum officials hope will be as much fun from the outside (architecturally) as the exhibits on the inside.
Designed by the internationally known architect Frank Gehry, the expansion project includes a floating education center, a 45-foot-tall, wave-shaped building, and a new waterfront park. Inside, children will find exhibits about the urban environment, including the city harbor.
"We wanted a place that kids could immediately connect with emotionally ... something that is unique, special, and completely indelible," says Linda Synder, museum project director.
The Children's Museum will build the project in partnership with The Computer Museum, which is currently housed in the same brick building. Museum officials hope to start construction of the 14-month project in the fall of 1993.
The idea is for children to enjoy the museum from the minute they actually see the building from the outside. That's why the new addition will be built in such a playful, whimsical style, say museum officials.
Too often, kids get tired from the fuss of museum visits with long car rides, ticket lines, and impatient parents, says Kenneth Brecher, museum director.
"The museum experience for kids is pretty horrible," says Mr. Brecher. "They're fed up by the trip by the time they get to the experience. We've got to get away from that."
At the new waterfront park, for example, kids will be able to view festivals, concerts, and interactive outdoor water exhibits. In an important move, the entire park is to be accessible to children with disabilities: the museum has devised a pathway to be called the "stroller coaster," a wacky, wavy path for wheelchair users.
"It's got to be as much fun for a child with special needs as a child who is able," says Brecher.
Museum officials chose Mr. Gehry as the architect because they liked his zany, carefree style.
Gehry, who lives and works in southern California, recently designed an entertainment complex for the Euro Disneyland theme park outside Paris. He also designed several other museum-scale projects, including the California Aerospace Museum in Los Angeles, the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro, Calif., and the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. In 1989, Gehry was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.
His style, called Deconstructivist, is known for free-wheeling, sculptural forms. Deconstructivism is a form of architecture that draws attention to unusual connections between pieces of a building, says Richard Fitzgerald, director of the Boston Society of Architects. It is not a mainstream style at all, he says.
"The walls are bent. They don't meet at corners. None of the usual visual symbols are there. There are very few 90-degree angles. There aren't typical corners.... In fact the building is being unbuilt, being deconstructed, in part, to help people understand the building and what it takes to put the building together," says Mr. Fitzgerald.
The inside of the new expansion promises to be as intriguing as the outside.
The curving center section, which resembles a cresting wave, will provide an expansive indoor space open to both museumgoers and casual visitors. Inside the 5,900-square-foot sky-lit structure will be exhibits, plenty of public seating, and an indoor/outdoor cafe. The wave may be constructed of copper, although that is still under consideration.
A pedestrian bridge inside the wave will offer views of the Boston Harbor and city skyline. The bridge will connect visitors to the floating barge. One offbeat idea under discussion is to have goldfish swimming in the railings of the bridge walkway.
"Everything is possible," says Brecher.
The watery theme extends right into the floating barge. This stationary vessel will rise and fall with ocean tide levels in the Fort Point Channel. Inside will be a specially designed elevator that will automatically adjust to tides.
Kids visiting the green-colored stainless-steel barge will learn about water and weather. Some highlights include a glass-enclosed "cloud room" for observing cloud formations, a three-sided windowed room for observing and monitoring the channel, and a weather tracking station. The center will also house a new classroom for 4th- through 6th-graders who can take part in a week-long, multidisciplinary course on the harbor environment.
The Boston Harbor as a study area is a perfect setting for the new addition, according to Brecher. At the site, children can learn firsthand about the harbor environment, he says.
"This is a little bit of ocean, and if we look at it closely enough, we'll see a lot of different things," he says.