Water Worlds

UPDATED 10/05/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/05/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

When architect Peter Chermayeff finished work in 1990 on his eight-story Osaka, Japan, aquarium, he asked the curator if he could take a plunge into the 2.9 million-gallon main tank, already occupied by a 16-foot whale shark. "I just wanted to see what it was like from her perspective," explains the 62-year-old father of two. Donning scuba gear, he dived in and spent the next hour swimming with the two-ton shark, which prefers plankton to architects. Says Chermayeff: "I had the swim of my life."

Such celebratory dips have become something of a ritual for the London-born Chermayeff. "It's a little christening," he says. Since Osaka, Chermayeff has designed aquariums in Chattanooga, Genoa, Italy and Lisbon. Their scale, style and success—each is drawing far more visitors than expected—have helped make him the world's foremost aquarium designer. "He's a genius when it comes to what he does," says former Chattanooga Aquarium president Bill Flynn, who sometimes works with Chermayeff as a consultant. "He hasn't built any that have failed." Adds Dr. Joseph Geraci of Baltimore's National Aquarium: "In the past, aquariums were more museums. Peter considers an aquarium a story to be told in living pictures."

Chermayeff says the philosophy that sustains him is simple. "Ultimately, it's an educational mission," he says. "What aquariums are all about at their best is creating magic moments of connection and linkage between people and animals." His Genoa aquarium, opened in 1992, re-creates hometown hero Christopher Columbus's maiden voyage to America by displaying the sea life he sailed above; Chattanooga, which opened the same year, is the world's first major freshwater aquarium and features its own Appalachian forest; Lisbon, which opened in May, is the centerpiece of Expo '98.

Although Chermayeff's lifework has come as a surprise—"I really didn't expect to have many of these to do," he says—it seems perfectly logical. His twin worlds of design and environmentalism started converging soon after he arrived in the U.S. from London in 1940 when he was just 4, the younger son of Russian-born architect Serge Chermayeff, who died in 1996, and his wife, Barbara, now 94. As he was growing up in New York City and Chicago, family friends included Walter Gropius, founder of the celebrated Bauhaus school of design, and famed designer Buckminster Fuller, who once had to endure Chermayeff's pet sparrow hawk landing on his head. "Bucky, to his credit, didn't move an inch," recalls Chermayeff. The family's summers were spent on Cape Cod, Mass., where young Peter developed his love of the sea and its creatures.

After receiving his master's in architecture from Harvard in 1962, a restless Chermayeff flirted with filmmaking. Then, that same year, he and six associates audaciously bid for the job of designing the New England Aquarium in Boston. "We printed our stationery the night before, went to the interview and, to our astonishment, we were selected," recalls Chermayeff, who was just 26 at the time. Despite their youth and inexperience, Chermayeff and his colleagues, including his older brother Ivan, created an aquarium that was an instant success. "We had made a museum of life in the water that was also entertaining and fun," he says. Next came the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which opened in 1981, and then Osaka.

When not traveling the world designing aquariums, Chermayeff lives with his second wife, Andrea Petersen, 54, an attorney, and their 12-year-old daughter Jessica, in a lakeshore house in Arlington, Mass. (He has a 28-year-old son from his previous marriage.) And yes, he does have an aquarium at home, albeit a modest 40-gallon tank stocked with clownfish and shrimp. With aquarium projects on the drawing board for Des Moines and Germany, Chermayeff hopes to remain immersed in his work for some time to come. "I'm having a great time and don't see myself retiring until I'm in my seventies," he says, adding with a grin, "and hopefully, not even then."

Bruce Guthrie
Tom Duffy in Cambridge

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