Home Aquariums Become Nature-Based Art Experiences
More homeowners want exotic fish and visual spectacles.
Merging indoor and outdoor spaces in an intriguing manner has long been standard practice in high-end residences.
Now, architects and interior designers are going to great lengths—and great depths—to breathe new life into the concept by incorporating uber-expensive, over-the-top aquariums into their plans.
These high-style living landscapes, which come in freshwater as well as saltwater versions, are much more than mere repositories for fleets of fancy fish. They are carefully curated to create an engaging and constantly evolving nature-based art experience.
The designs, in glass, or for larger aquariums—acrylic—range from artistic minimalist sea-scene sculptures that feature fish floating amid driftwood, rocks and sand to elaborate living-reef tanks that recreate natural ecosystems complete with corals, crabs, clams and sea cucumbers.
“The reefs are live, living marine gardens inside your home, with the corals constantly growing and moving, ensuring that the visual spectacle is constantly evolving,”
said James Bruce, managing director of Sanderia Group for Hong Kong-based RedFin Aquarium Design, a Hong Kong based company that focuses on the design, installation and maintenance of bespoke luxury aquariums.
Whether they take the form of bespoke freestanding furniture, structural sculptures or clever custom wall units, these amped-up aquariums are integral parts of the architecture and entertainment features of the home.
Carrying price tags of US$10,000 to over US$1.5 million, that in some cases do not even include the fish, they are becoming de rigueur in the best homes around the world. (It goes without saying that maintenance costs, which can range from US$300 to US$35,000 per month, are extra.)
Brian Sanders, general manager of Brooklyn-based City Aquarium, said his clients, who include bankers, CEOs, hedge-funders, doctors and film and TV celebrities, want to experience the “inherent beauty, tranquility and even mystery of oceanic life. We had one client who lost his mind over finding a little crab in his tank. He had a tank full of fish, but this one unexpected discovery mesmerized him—it was the ocean come home.”
Martin Schapira, a co-founder and a lead designer for Manhattan-based Okeanos Aquascaping, which has done projects in Paris, London, Australia and Nigeria, recently completed a 900-gallon aquarium that’s the main feature of a dance floor with color-changing LED lights in a private residence in Lagos, Nigeria.
To complement the décor of the room, whose color scheme primarily is in black and white, he stocked the tank with more than 60 Banggai Cardinalfish. The fish, which inhabit a small area on the Indonesian island of the same name, have silver bodies that are marked with vertical black stripes.
“I created two sloping reefs in the tank, leaving the center open so you can see the fish swimming in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “The fish look like pieces of art, and they swim in unison like an orchestra.”
The cost—including the laminated glass tank, the millwork finishes and the fish—was US$650,000.
Finding the Fish a Home Within the House
Although most people install aquariums in the public rooms of the house, where they serve as showpieces, others request them in more mundane spaces, from the bathroom and the bedroom to the basement.
Mr. Sanders, for instance, recently installed a wraparound tank to enhance a bathroom in Dallas. The cost, he said, exceeded US$1 million.
“It’s not uncommon for clients to have two or more aquariums,” said Mike Senske, co-founder of Aquarium Design Group, which is based in Houston, Texas. “I’ve had clients who’ve had five in one house. I built one in a wine cellar, and I’ve done some outdoor ones, including one in a rock-grotto pool cabana that needed temperature control.”
Mr. Bruce said that in some of the more extravagant and larger residences, aquariums are placed in dedicated entertainment zones. “Form palaces with tanks only containing carnivorous predator fish to in-house nightclubs with jellyfish tanks illuminated in fluorescent blue lighting, I’ve seen it all,” he said.
One of his more spectacular creations is a US$250,000, 3,000-gallon acrylic aquarium designed to be the centerpiece of a room in a private villa in Dubai. The tank, which is more than 15 feet long and 9 feet tall, is decorated with hand-crafted artificial corals and a variety of colorful reef fish. It includes an external filtration room in the basement that has pipes running between the different levels.
“We did another one in Dubai where you can look through the aquarium from the entrance foyer into the garage where the owner stored a Bugatti and a Ferrari,” he added.
Aquariums Around the World
Luke Young, a designer at Aquarium Architecture, which has offices in London, Lagos, and Seville, Spain, said that uber-expensive aquariums are particularly popular in the United States and western countries.
Mr. Sanders agreed, noting that “Germany, which is where the aquatic industry started, is still a leader in innovative aquarium technology. Japan has always relished aquariums for their aesthetic and naturalistic qualities. Freshwater-planted tanks are extremely popular there and have impacted the industry everywhere.”
Mr. Bruce added that in “Asian societies, aquariums provide a stylish way to bring water—one of the five traditional elements of Feng Shui—into a space. It’s seen as a bearer of good fortune.”
He noted that most of his orders for large residential aquariums come from the Middle East and Asia. “Perhaps this reflects societies where more ostentatious displays of wealth are more common,” he said. “This is also evident within the United States, where Florida and California are the main regional markets for such installations.”
A 25-foot-long live coral reef aquarium that RedFin designed for a luxury residence on the 14 and 15 floors of a Hong Kong high-rise was so large that Mr. Bruce and his team planned to knock through a window and lift it into place with a crane.
“At the last minute, the building management refused permission for the crane,” he said. “So we had to split the tank into sections and squeeze them into a service elevator in 95-degree heat.”
Aquariums as Design Elements—and Means of Meditation
Regardless of size, aquariums are designed to complement the décor.
“The aquascapes I create take shape from the architecture of the room and the view,” Mr. Schapira said. “The aquarium is a canvas, and the fish are actors, so you have to let them pop.”
He likens himself to a filmmaker who’s “telling a story and making every scene beautiful.”
The best aquariums, he said, don’t appear to be planned out. “They look like they just happened,” he said. “You can’t tell a man made it.”
Aesthetics aside, studies have shown that gazing at an aquarium reduces stress and lowers blood pressure.
“Aquariums create a window to another world and bring nature into the home,” Mr. Schapira said. “It’s a special experience.”
Added Mr. Senske, “It’s a pure form of meditation.”
Aquariums are becoming more complex, in part, because new technology has allowed designers to create practically any shape and size a homeowner can dream up.
Aquarium Architecture’s tanks, for instance, are made of specialist low-iron glass or high-clarity acrylic panels and food-grade aquarium safe sealants that allow them to withstand the immense pressure created by thousands of pounds of saltwater.
“Larger systems,” Mr. Young noted, are engineered with structural steel works, galvanized and powder-coated to withstand harsh environments created by saltwater aquariums.”
Although most aquarium buyers focus on looks, a fair number are equally interested in the livestock and other living elements that will go in them.
“Some clients collect fish and coral like they’re baseball cards,” Mr. Senske said, adding that these connoisseurs don’t hesitate to pay US$3,000 to US$5,000 per specimen.
For the mixed-reef saltwater aquarium in the reception area of Twenty Grosvenor Square, a luxury residential complex with 37 units in London’s Mayfair district, where units start at £17.5 million (US$22.11 million) the London interior design firm Finchatton and Aquarium Architecture created a bespoke livestock collection that includes a mated pair of Percula Clownfish, Banggai Cardinalfish, Regal Blue Tang, a group of Yellow tangs and a Mystery Wrasse.
They complement the corals—Purple Stylophora, Acanthastrea, Green Toadstool, Duncan, Green and Red Plating Montipora and Zoanthid colonies.
“Together, the corals and the fish are an exciting blend of colors, shapes and movements,” said Jiin Kim-Inoue, Finchatton design director, adding that the aquarium was sited at the bottom of a staircase for dramatic effect.
Exotic and expensive fish must be carefully selected because not all of them will swim in harmony.
“Lots are territorial and will attack others of the same or similar species,” Mr. Bruce said. “Others, such as the beautiful lionfish, will eat any other fish that will fit in its mouth.”
The best choices, he added, are those that live in small areas of the wild.
“Some small gobies, blennies and damsels will spend most of their adult life inhabiting one single coral head and may not stray further than a few feet from this location at any time,” he said. “They are perfect for an aquarium. Others naturally roam thousands of miles and will never be happy in an aquarium.”
Mr. Senke noted that such saltwater aquariums are two to three times as expensive as freshwater versions because their eco-systems are more difficult to sustain and maintain.
And keeping the fish and plants alive can be challenging, which is why some custom aquarium companies offer freshwater options that have the look of saltwater aquascapes.
As bespoke aquariums become more sophisticated and more sought after, it’s only a matter of time—and money—before they offer more immersive experiences.
“Increasingly, we are getting requests for unusual curved or cylindrical-shaped aquariums constructed out of plexiglass and with modern LED lighting matching more contemporary decors,” Mr. Bruce said.
He’s already riding the next wave: He has a couple of splashy concepts on his drawing board.
Unlike conventional tanks, one is designed to be viewed from the top as well as from the sides.
“There will be a spiral staircase that leads to a glass floor,” he said of the aquarium that will be 26-feet by 26-feet by 9-feet. “You can walk on top of the tank and peer into it through the glass floor. It will give the impression that you’re walking on water.”
His plans call for stocking it with an artificial custom coral and rock insert and a variety of colorful fish, including small sharks, stingrays and puffers.
The other one’s a circular aquarium that has a 246-square-foot room within its acrylic walls that can be used for dinner parties and dancing. The idea, he said, is to make it seem as if the human inhabitants are swimming in the ocean with the fish.
Its aquascape will be a replica of the Pacific Ocean’s fabled Coral Triangle, which is found under the waters around Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.
The 38-ton acrylic tank will be specially shaped in a factory, hold 160,000 liters of water and feature 1,000 fish of more than 100 species. Specimens will include queen angelfish and emperor angelfish as well as schools of anthias, chromis, gobies and blennies.
When swimming in tandem, Mr. Bruce said, “they are some of the most striking sights on the reef.”
Other sea creatures, ranging from shrimp and lobsters to sea cucumbers and snails, will round out the sensational, serene sea scene.
The colorful corals will be grown from clippings harvested from reefs. The marine ecosystem will be maintained by a computer-controlled filtration/life support system that will be installed in a separate room.
Mr. Bruce noted that the lighting will be programmed to emulate the Coral Triangle’s solar-lunar cycle. Throughout the aquarium’s life, every two weeks, a professional diver will be dispatched to clean the tank and collect samples for a water-quality analysis.
Each of Mr. James’ visions will cost about US$1.5 million. For the tanks alone.
“We’ve had some preliminary discussions with interested clients but nothing concrete yet,” he said.
(via Mansion Global)