Sprawling expansion plan for Living Planet Aquarium in Utah has a huge centerpiece: U2’s ‘The Claw’

Nine-acre, $25 million upgrade will feature VR-based interactive exhibit, 7,000-seat outdoor theater, five-story conservation center, and 165-foot-tall piece of rock ’n’ roll history.

(Courtesy of Loveland Living Planet Aquarium and Beecher Walker Architects) A rendering of the Living Planet Aquarium’s new Science Learning Center addition, outdoor pathways and “The Claw.” Some construction will start this fall and be completed by Summer 2019, with the second phase wrapping sometime in 2020.

From the moment he met with architects to explain his vision back in 1998, Brent Andersen intended for Draper’s Loveland Living Planet Aquarium (LLPA) to be far more than the last word of its name conveyed, for it to incorporate animal exhibits, classrooms, high-tech interactive stations, a conservation center …

But adding “The Claw” — a 165-foot-tall, 190-ton stage component that rock band U2 used on its 360° Tour between 2009 and 2011 — well, that was just a bonus.

After announcing in July a proposal to add an 80,000-square-foot Science Learning Center to its campus, the LLPA on Tuesday morning disclosed additional details of its ambitious and sprawling 9-acre, $25 million expansion plan, to include “The Claw” as a centerpiece.

“It’s certainly a new icon, a new monument here in the valley,” said Andersen, the LLPA’s founder and CEO, “something that will draw a lot of attention.”

Yeah, that won’t be a problem.

While there are many intriguing new components in the works for the aquarium — including the virtual-reality-based “Eco Command Center,” a 7,000-seat outdoor venue, large gathering spaces intended to host the likes of farmers markets and festivals, and the five-story Asian Cloud Forest Habitat & Endangered Species Conservation Center — “The Claw,” which will rise to four times the height of the aquarium, stands as the most attention-grabbing piece.

(Courtesy of Loveland Living Planet Aquarium and Beecher Walker Architects) A rendering of the Living Planet Aquarium’s new Science Learning Center addition, gathering space and “The Claw,” which rock band U2 used during its 360° Tour between 2009-11.

What, exactly, is the point of inserting the four-legged leviathan into the middle of everything, though?

The idea, Andersen said, was to have “some defining architectural element” associated with the new-look campus, “like the St. Louis Arch, or the Scripps Aquarium in San Diego, which has these two giant whale sculptures outside. Or Paul Allen’s museum [of pop culture] in Seattle.”

Such a unique and well-known piece can’t help but bring people to the aquarium’s other new attractions.

“We knew a lot of our guests wanted to have different experiences. We wanted to add to the critical mass of this place, have it be a destination both for locals and tourists,” Andersen said. “The Claw didn’t displace any of that; it actually augmented it. It’s actually very functional.”

For that matter, “very functional” is how he sees the aquarium in general, old and new components alike.

It all ties back to that original vision.

For starters, there will be a lot more classrooms. Andersen noted that while there will be some college-level labs added (the LLPA is working with Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley University on a usage plan), he’s more concerned with increasing the number of K-12 rooms.

“We don’t have enough right now to meet the demand for all the field trips and summer camps that have been requested,” he said. “So, the impetus was to add scale to meet demand.”

Beyond that, he sees an opportunity to provide a much-needed assist in promoting science, technology, engineering and math subjects, often referred to as STEM.

“In Utah and the U.S., we’re not as competitive as we used to be in science,” he said. “We really need to improve on that, both from an economic standpoint and from a technological one.”

One such means of stoking that interest may come from fulfilling the “high-tech interactive stations” goal. The Eco Command Center will combine VR simulations with digital content, requiring participants to use teamwork and science to complete “eco-missions around the globe.”

The Asian Cloud Forest Habitat & Endangered Species Conservation Center checks the remaining two boxes. While there are already existing animal exhibits — everything from butterflies to toucans to sloths — the primary purpose of this center, Andersen said, is to “make sure we have a robust breeding program, then those animals can go to other exhibits around the world.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium has acquired a couple of two-toed sloths that will be unveiled to the public on Friday. With the aid of two claws for her front legs and three for the back legs, a female sloth readjusts from a midday slumber. They've been adjusting to the sights and sounds of the aquarium for the past couple of weeks after being rescued from the South American country of Guyana due to habitat deforestation.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune The aviary in the Journey to South America exhibit at Draper's Loveland Living Planet Aquarium has doubled in size, giving two new bird residents, Keel-billed toucans, an opportunity to breed. Friday, June 30, 2017.

Now that the first round of fundraising toward the $25 million price tag is complete, construction will begin this fall, and the plaza, gathering spaces, Eco Command Center, and The Claw should be in place by summer 2019.

The 501(c)(3) nonprofit relies on donations and grants (such as from the Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts and Parks tax program) for its funding, and so will be launching a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for Phase 2, which will cover the Science Learning Center and should be complete in about 18 months.

Those wishing to contribute can do so at gofundme.com/livingplanetaquarium.

That structure will be connected to the existing building, bringing its total size to about 220,000 square feet.

The Claw doesn’t cover nearly that much area (28,287 square feet), but it is no less awe-inspiring for it.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The U2 360 Tour stage begins to take shape inside Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah Monday, May 23, 2011.

Andersen recalled being blown away upon seeing it — first in Barcelona, then again at U2’s May 24, 2011, concert at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City — and he expects guests of the LLPA will feel the same way the first time they encounter it.

“I stopped in my tracks and marveled at it. I was blocking the people behind me from getting through because I was staring at it,” he said. “It was very imposing, but also, I saw it more as sculpture and art; I saw it from an artistic standpoint. I was looking at how it impacted me and other people. … We wanted to bring it here. … It fit perfectly with what we already had.”

Andersen had read an article that The Claw was available for sale to the right buyer and reached out (he declined to name its purchase price, except to say it was “just a small fraction” of the $25M total price tag). The band is confident The Claw wound up in the right hands.

“Since the 360° Tour concluded in 2011, we’ve been vetting potential sites for the permanent placement of The Claw,” Craig Evans, U2’s tour director, said in a statement. “It’s bittersweet to see it go, but we are pleased it’s going to enhance the mission and vision of Loveland Living Planet Aquarium as part of its expanded campus.”