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Issue: June 2015

Takashi Amano’s Lisbon Project: Building the World’s Largest Nature Aquarium - Part 1 (FULL

Author: Takashi Amano


Photographer: Takashi Amano
Known for its size and collection of species from around the world, Lisbon Oceanarium in Portugal is one of the world’s largest public aquariums. The travel website Trip Advisor ranked it the second best aquarium in the world in 2014.

When I visited there in May 2013, CEO João Falcato approached me with an amazing offer. He requested my help in installing a Nature Aquarium as the main attraction of the annex, which was being renovated to reopen in April 2015. The display area for the proposed annex was going to be around 6,500 square feet (600 square meters). If we were to maximize the available space, it would be possible to house a 130-foot- (40-meter-) long, C-shaped aquarium that would give visitors the impression they had stepped into a natural body of water. It would also be the Oceanarium’s first exhibit of a full-fledged aquatic plant layout.

I later learned that a photo book was the inspiration for this annex, and it eventually led to the invitation I received to work with Portugal’s famous, world-class aquarium. That book was my first on aquatic plant layouts, Nature Aquarium World, which was published in Japan in 1992 and later translated into six languages. Mr. Falcato said he became a big fan of Nature Aquarium ever since he saw my book. He wanted to collaborate with me to create an aquarium that not only integrated art with a tropical freshwater environment, but also presented the Japanese culture to visitors.

The Nature Aquarium layout style, which recreates underwater ecosystems seen in nature, has been attracting the attention of many people in Europe due to the recent increase in environmental awareness. This project was borne out of the desire to bring attention to the growing need for aquatic conservation.

The Design Concept

As soon as I returned home to Japan in May 2013, I relayed my experience to my staff, along with my ideas for the project. I instructed them to produce a scale model for the 130-foot- (40-meter-) long aquarium. Because the design concept presented the serious problem of having four structural-support columns inside the aquarium, it was necessary to begin creating models of the proposed layouts as soon as possible.

The main issue was that the columns were obstacles to the presentation displayed inside a Nature Aquarium, which attempts to recreate a natural environment and its scenery. I repeated several layout simulations for the model and followed them up with discussions with my staff.

In March 2014, three project members from the Lisbon Oceanarium arrived at ADA headquarters in Japan to check on the status of the proposed layout and to receive an intensive two weeks of training on the techniques of growing aquatic plants. Having no knowledge of my daily anguish concerning design issues, the project leader, João Madureira, kept asking to see the layout in order to write a progress report.

The team from Lisbon probably did not understand how difficult it was to produce and maintain an aquatic plant layout in such a large space. The aquarium that I was faced with designing was 130 feet (40 meters) long, 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep, and 8 feet (2.5 meters) front-to-back. The water volume was 170 tons, including filtration. Professionals are expected to succeed. We cannot afford to fail. But it was not easy to come up with a plan, considering not only the complex layout needed for such an enormous aquarium, but also the routine maintenance work afterword, as well. As Lisbon Oceanarium impatiently waited—faced with its upcoming groundbreaking day—I had no choice but to try out various layouts for the model and develop an idea based on my past experience.

A New Style

After examining several possibilities, I proposed a totally new style of Nature Aquarium, one that would be unlike any existing layout. Even though the Lisbon aquarium was 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep, I recommended intentionally creating a shallow area to provide variation to the environment. Underwater scenery, which constantly changes from the bank to open water, would be recreated by planting aquatic plants that were ecologically appropriate for the depth of the water they were in, from shallow to deep.

I took some time carefully explaining the concept of this new design to the Oceanarium staff. My enthusiasm and commitment finally won them over in September 2014, with only five months remaining until the production start date of late January 2015. The deadline was approaching, and a pile of problems still needed to be solved.

Aquatic Plants

Although the layout concept had been accepted, there were still a number of concerns that needed to be addressed, such as the four columns, the lighting, a filtration system issue, stone and driftwood procurement, and water quality. We had to select aquatic plants proven to grow in 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water and confirm their availabilities with vendors. Because of the immense size of the aquarium, the required volume of each type of plant was large. My staff had to check what was available not only in our ADA greenhouse, but also in various aquatic plant farms all over the world.

Although we had no difficulty acquiring some easier-to-find plants, including stem plants, in time for the production start date, there were others, such as several large epiphytic aquatic plants, which were going to be difficult to obtain. While epiphytic plants were readily available in small pots, the ones that were size-appropriate for this huge aquarium were very rare among the farms that we contacted. The problem was finally solved when we reached out to Japanese aquatic plant enthusiasts who were willing to donate their large, home-grown epiphytes.

However, with that obstacle out of the way, we encountered another. The aquatic plants that we were being grown in the ADA greenhouse for use in the Oceanarium were growing slower than expected. Due to an oversight, a delay in the acquisition of the plants initiated the problem. Also, because it was late fall in Niigata, Japan, the daylight hours were getting shorter. I had never looked at the winter-gray sky of Niigata with such resentment. Cloudy days continued mercilessly. This delay was detrimental to the project, since it takes time to grow out Echinodorus swordplants, which adore bright sunlight. This would not do. I had to gamble. I instructed my staff to move the plants to the indoor stock tanks and facilitate their growth utilizing artificial lighting. We were soon back on schedule after commandeering the tanks in the Nature Aquarium gallery.

Buoyant Driftwood

It was January 2015, and our departure to Portugal was drawing near. Feeling relieved that the aquatic plants were doing well, I asked my staff about the progress of driftwood procurement. Lisbon Oceanarium had searched for appropriately sized driftwood and found some in Scotland. It was submerged in a reservoir, but when my staff inquired about it, they were told it was still neutrally buoyant. Buoyant driftwood moves easily with water current and, therefore, would be useless in a layout.

Having this predicament right before on-site production presented a serious problem. There was no guarantee that the driftwood would completely sink before the day we were to begin. I asked Lisbon Oceanarium to weigh down the driftwood with stones, and I would deal with the situation on-site. After resolving as many problems as I could beforehand, I finally left for Portugal with my staff on January 27. The layout work was scheduled to start the next day.

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