The structure I have chosen to describe is a facility that I was recently able to visit. It is called the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The town, and hence aquarium, is a popular tourist destination and draw for sight-seeing travelers. The architecture company responsible for the building in question was Helman Hurley Charvat Peacock (HHCP) Architecture. Built in 2001, the building has been recognized as the No. 1 aquarium in the United States (Wlt 1). The building itself is incredibly intricate in design. The exterior is accessorized with huge glass windows and occasional, tasteful lighting designed to emulate the appearance of waves. It is sitting on a platform which makes up a multi-level patio, sprinkled with seating and a few small vendors.
This building, one of few aquariums in east Tennessee, contains 1.4 million gallons of both salt and freshwater exhibits, holding more that 350 species and 100,000 total animals. It is carefully nestled behind the main shopping area of Gatlinburg, leading to a much lower rate of foot traffic (Ripley’s 1). A small stream runs along the front side of the building, which contains a sizeable viewing bridge where visitors can see both the water and the ducks that live in it. When approaching the building, one first notices the exquisite glass-front ticket sales station. Despite having the sole function of ticket sales, this is one of the defining structural features of the building.
Entering the building, one first notices an enormous, 10-20-foot model of a prehistoric turtle fossil suspended from the ceiling. In addition to the turtle, one soon notices both the skeleton of a blue whale and a fossil model of the world’s largest prehistoric crocodilian. The ceilings are so high and made of glass that one seeming doesn’t even realize it is there. The floor in which you enter is largely open to the floor below, allowing visitors to get a sneak peak of some of the attractions. Each exhibit is designed to appear as though it is the natural environment of the animal present. The fresh water exhibits come first, as the architecture tricks you into thinking you are in the depths of a jungle. The walls have now become tree trunks; rocks carefully laid into the edge of the walkway. The flow if the building is designed somewhat like a maze, never exactly knowing where you are in the whole scheme of things.
You then move into the coastal area, containing largely unnoticed walls, feeling as though you may actually be outdoors. Proceeding up and down a variety of smoothly sloped floors, you unknowingly find yourself in completely new environments. In the deep ocean, if you look closely, you will realize that every inch of the room: floor, walls, and ceiling; are all covered in dark blue carpeting. This leads to the desired effective of expansive darkness the designers were trying to achieve.
Next, you finally end up in one of the most popular areas of the aquarium, strictly due to its architecture. You have now reached the shark and reef area. However, this is a shark exhibit like you have never seen. The exhibit is a 340-foot tunnel made of glass that takes you through the middle of the largest tank in the building. Designers chose to install a moving walkway, allowing visitors to focus solely on the wondrous views they are now seeing, as if they are walking among the fish. The glass tunnel is probably the most amazing feature of the entire building (Dangerous 1).
Next, visitors will approach the area displaying schooling fish. This room is incredibly large and open, attempting to convey the vastness of the ocean. You then subtly transition into the arctic area. The walls are covered with what looks like snow and ice, while the exhibit is constructed as a large rock face which houses the penguins. An interesting architectural choice in this area is the ability to move outdoors. In the fall and winter, this allows for the circulation of cold air, adding to the icy environment.
Lastly, you enter the open area that was seen when you entered. This area, while not as structurally interesting, was clearly designed with children in mind. The designer included the addition of large playset structures, reaching almost to the ceiling. Finally, this area contains what will be the last exhibit, where the tanks were built specifically to allow visitors to reach in and touch the animals present. Leaving the aquarium, you must travel back the an intricate gift shop and exiting area (Ripley’s 1).
Overall, the building containing Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is one of the most architecturally interesting and beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Somehow, the architects manage to make a building that truly made you believe you were in the ocean, or walking along a riverbank. The design is so intricate that you tend to forget you are indoors at all. It’s hard to point out a favorite feature of the building; could it be the open layout with amazingly high ceilings; the glass walls, ceilings, and tunnel, or the views that are so frequently present.
When leaving the building, you are snapped back into reality. However, the reality outside is certainly nothing to complain about. Being located deep in the Smoky Mountains, your will be bombarded with beautiful views. Finally, I have found a building as magical and intricate as nature.
- “Dangerous Reef.”�Ripley’s Aquarium of Myrtle Beach, www.ripleyaquariums.com/
- Wvlt. “Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies named No. 1 in the nation.”�Knoxville, East Tennessee News, Weather | Local 8 Now WVLT, www.local8now.com/
- “Ripley’s Aquariums.”�Ripley’s Aquariums, www.ripleyaquariums.com/.