The new $5.1 million Eastman Nature Center has no exhibits Velcroed to carpeted walls, no windowless rooms full of stuffed animals, no posters of every duck or frog or fish species known to science.

Instead, the sleek modernistic building of steel columns, laminated wood beams and immense windows offers wide-angle views of the surrounding maple-basswood forest, with bird feeders and a small pond to attract deer and other wildlife.

"Nature is the destination, not the building," said Jason Zemke, senior manager of architecture for Three Rivers Park District.

He has been working on the project since the old Eastman Nature Center (built in 1974) closed in June 2011 and was demolished soon afterward.

From its footprint has arisen a new, 14,000-square-foot building with nearly twice as much space.

It's located in Elm Creek Park Reserve in Maple Grove and is one of three nature centers in the Three Rivers Park system. It opens to the public for the first time on Sunday.

Visitors can tell the new Eastman is different even before they walk through the front door. Ahead they can see a vast exhibit space and soaring, slanted windows interspersed with vertical columns and frames. The windows' vertical orientation and the irregular spacing of columns are much like the trees outside, Zemke said.

The architecture and other features were designed to provide a smooth transition to the outdoors and to encourage observation, he said.

Older nature centers tend to be more inwardly focused, Zemke said, sometimes with lots of museum-type exhibits and plaques that are read but not remembered.

"Experiential learning and observation is where you're going to learn better and retain more information," he said.

Gateway to outdoors

A polished concrete floor provides areas for puppet theater, chairs for observation, and a 9-by-20-foot aerial photo of the park on the floor shows how creeks meander and flow through the park.

From the outside, windows slant dramatically upward to reflect the ground, not the forest, reducing the risks that birds will fly into the building.

A hiking trail connects at each side entrance to the center, making it seem like the building inside is a continuation of the trail from east to west.

"The whole concept is we're using the building as a gateway to get people to the outdoors," said Vicky Wachtler, interpretative naturalist.

To be sure, Eastman has tanks and aquariums with minnows, turtles, snakes and frogs, some of which can be viewed from below. Also returning is a great-horned owl, which has never been given a name because naturalists want children to appreciate that it is wild.

There are also a few stuffed birds and other wildlife, but they're mostly in an observation room near windows so that viewers can try to see their real-life versions outdoors.

"The original idea was that this observation room would almost be like a blind," said Zemke. Plans call for it to be outfitted with spotting scopes and picture frames to help visitors focus on bird nests or other details. "Rather than just have the whole forest to look at, we want to help people start to observe specific things," he said.

Some of the new building's other features include:

• Expanded and flexible classrooms, with the latest audiovisual systems.

• Larger outdoor observation areas, expanded parking and after-hours restroom access.

• A geothermal heating and cooling system, and solar thermal panels for domestic water heat.

• Rainwater and stormwater collection systems that feed into a wildlife pond.

• A new concessions area for beverages and packaged snacks, without the complication and expense of a full kitchen and food service.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388