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New Loveland Living Planet Aquarium is a whale of a project

Published March 25, 2014 9:08 am

From humble beginnings sprang an extraordinary idea — now about to be realized — to build a world-class aquarium in land-locked Utah.
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Draper • The impressive new Loveland Living Planet Aquarium was designed by a 30-year-old, kilt-wearing Utahn with a background in video games.


And no one is more surprised about it than Ari Robinson, the aquarium's art and design manager.

"When I started working here when I was 15, I never would have guessed that this is what I would be doing now," he said. "I thought I'd be the person feeding sharks or something in the back. That's what I really wanted to do."

Five years ago, Robinson and aquarium CEO Brent Andersen started kicking around ideas for the 136,000-square-foot building that looks bigger on the inside than it does on the outside — and is a quantum leap from the smaller facility the aquarium used to occupy in Sandy.

"We were outgrowing our last place and Brent was thinking about building this place," Robinson said. "He came to me and said, 'Hey, if you designed an aquarium, what would it look like?'

"And so I started drawing aquariums. Eventually, that led to the designs for this place."

Robinson started working at the aquarium before there was an aquarium. He was part of a group of volunteers who traveled in vans to classrooms across the state — a program that continues today.

"So I've been with the aquarium for literally half my life," he said.

It was a leap of faith to put this in the hands of a then-26-year-old guy with a degree in digital media who had never before designed a building.

"What we have here is just amazing," said Deana Walz, the aquarium's director of husbandry — the woman in charge of moving all of the approximately 5,000 animals to the new building. "When this is all said and done, it will be something to leave for my children's children. There are times when I just sit there, look around and I'm just blown away by what we were to what we're becoming."

What Robinson and a team at Holladay-based BWA Architects came up with is a hub-and-spoke design. The overall concept behind the aquarium is "like a choose-your-own-adventure book," he said. "A lot of places have kind of a forced flow where you start here and you end here. We wanted it to be more open."

Visitors to the aquarium come into a central lobby and decide which of five galleries they want to visit first.

There's the enormous, two-level Journey to South America, complete with an Amazon rain forest, where birds fly free and pillars are disguised as trees. It's filled with hundreds of tropical plants, which arrived in three semis during a snowstorm.

There's the Discover Utah hall, which is filled with native species, and The Ocean Explorer hall. Another area, which is being called either Bottom of the World or the Research area, has the penguins and what appears to be a giant research ship.

The fifth area will house rotating displays; the first isn't expected until 2015.

"The idea is that there are all these different environments, but we're all one living planet," Robinson said. "We really want people to be able to go through the Utah gallery and see stuff that's here in their own backyard, but then be able to go to the ocean gallery and kind of make that connection. And that's kind of the theme as a whole to the building."

The overall effect is overwhelming, particularly to anyone who was familiar with the much-smaller aquarium in Sandy.

"I can't wait to see their jaws drop," Walz said. "I've already picked out where I want to be on opening day to see people come in."

The goal for the entrance was to "feel aquatic without literally being — here's a fish," Robinson said. So the curved glass front suggests waves and water.

The rest of the building is, essentially, a big concrete box, but Robinson designed aluminum wedge shapes that look like fish scales during the day and, at night, are illuminated by an LED array that makes them look like waves.

He acknowledges that his vision sometimes ran up against architectural and design realities.

"Yes, that happened a lot of times," he said with a laugh. "I spent a lot of time working with the architects. The way my design process works is very different from the way the architects' design process generally works. It was a little bit of a learning experience for both me and the architects."

Robinson said he would sometimes pitch ideas "and I'd see their brains kind of melting out of their heads as they tried to wrap their minds around it."

BWA architect Lyle Beecher said it "was quite a process to collaborate with some of the thoughts and ideas that they had. Ari is a very creative display and set designer, and we just turned around and helped bring together the reality of it being housed in a building."

It wasn't so much the design that presented the challenges, it was designing on a relatively strict budget, with an eye toward making admission relatively reasonable.

"If there was any mind-melting going on, it was us looking at the design that they wanted to portray and figuring out how are we going to make that work within the budget restraints," said BWA architect Gary Gowers.

The $24 million construction cost includes a $14 million bond from Draper; a $2 million state allocation; a $2.5 million gift from the Loveland Family Foundation; and $5.5 million from corporate, private and individual donors. The aquarium is projecting at least 530,000 visitors a year, and continuing operations will be funded by gate receipts and gift shop and cafe sales.

There's enormous attention to detail. There are big details, like the 40-foot sculpture of a whale shark suspended from the ceiling above the entrance and the 40-foot, 26,000-pound Plexiglas tunnel that will allow people to traverse the 300,000-gallon shark tank. There are small details like the "bubble" that allows youngsters to pop their heads inside smaller tanks and the re-creations of various sea creatures that were sculpted for some of the 74 exhibits.

"We got a couple of actual mussels and barnacles from the coastline of California," Robinson said, "and then we made molds and cast these and hand-painted them."

It's fun, but it's also designed to be educational. In addition to the 156-seat 4-D theater (that's 3-D with the addition of movement and aromas), there are three large classrooms, where children visiting on field trips can meet with marine biologists.

Education is a major part of the aquarium's mandate.

"Having an aquarium here in Utah is almost more important than having one on the coast because it's something that kids here would otherwise never see," Robinson said. "If they can come here and understand how important it is to have good stewardship over nature — that's what I'd like kids to kind of get inspired about."

spierce@sltrib.com Twitter: @ScottDPierce —

Loveland Living Planet Aquarium

Grand opening • Tuesday, March 25, at 10 a.m.

Where • 12033 S. Lone Peak Parkway, Draper

Tickets • Adults, $15.95; students 13-17, seniors and military, $12.95; children 3-12, $10.95; children 2 and younger get in for free; call 801-355-3474 or visit http://www.thelivingplanet.com for more information.