Plank seeks high style for new Under Armour campus design

Plank taps renowned architecture firm known for modernist design for Port Covington

In Menlo Park, Calif., this past spring, Facebook employees moved into a 22-acre hangar designed by Frank Gehry and topped with a park-like green roof. Not far away, in Cupertino, Apple's futuristic ring-shape offices, likened to a spaceship and designed by Sir Norman Foster, are under construction.

In Baltimore, Under Armour, which styles itself as a technology-focused performance sportswear brand, is imitating the West Coast tech giants in at least one way — hiring a world-renowned "starchitect" for its new campus in Port Covington.

The company brought on Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the architecture firm behind the sleek glass Apple Stores in New York, London and elsewhere, Microsoft founder Bill Gates' high-tech lakefront super-lodge and offices for such West Coast firms as Adobe and Pixar, to do the master plan for its new campus in South Baltimore.

Since Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank started to privately acquire some 200 acres in Port Covington several years ago, planning has been kept closely under wraps, with one-off projects — a whiskey distillery; the conversion of a former Sam's Club into Under Armour offices; the renovation of an old city garage — occasionally trickling into public view.

Marc Weller, the president of Sagamore Development, Plank's private real estate company, said the teams just aren't ready to present a grand vision yet.

But the selection of BCJ for the Under Armour portion may provide a clue to what Plank hopes to achieve.

The company, which has offices in Pennsylvania, San Francisco and Seattle, became famous in the 1990s when it partnered on the design of Gates' house — nicknamed Xanadu after the estate in "Citizen Kane" — which combined a modest Pacific Northwest aesthetic with wow features like a trampoline room, personal climate controls, and music piped into the swimming pool.

The firm also designed Apple's iconic glass cube on Fifth Avenue in New York City, later adapting the sleek simplicity of that design to more traditional buildings around the world.

In Shanghai, it recently created a flagship store for Japanese apparel brand Uniqlo with flying mannequins. Lower-key projects, like homes nestled in forests, also have won acclaim.

In Baltimore, its work includes the Sellinger School of Business at Loyola University Maryland and the School of Dentistry at the University of Maryland.

The firm said the appropriate people were not available for an interview Friday,.

Brian Kelly, the director of the University of Maryland's architecture program, where BCJ co-founder Peter Bohlin served as a visiting professor, said the firm was talking about sustainability years before it became a buzzword. and its projects respect their surroundings.

"They tend to be very good at understanding the history of a place and building upon the tangible qualities … but doing so in a way that utilizes contemporary materials and contemporary ideas," Kelly said. "These guys are not the kind of guys you would expect to look old-timey, but they might create something that has the kind of ring to it that is familiar."

Bohlin, who won the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects in 2010 — an award that vaulted him into the ranks of global design celebrities such as Gehry and I.M. Pei — calls himself a "soft Modernist." Others often characterize the firm's work as both minimalist and warm.

BCJ is one of two architecture firms plotting the future of Plank's holdings.

For the much larger, noncampus space, Plank's private real estate company, Sagamore Development, has hired Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects to craft a master plan for a mixed-use development, Weller said. The firm's work includes the Las Vegas City Hall and projects in Boston's Seaport District. Principal David Manfredi, who is working with Sagamore, also recently presented designs for Corporate Office Properties Trust's proposed $1 billion development in Canton.

Weller said the teams have been looking around the world for inspiration for what they will build in Baltimore. But as to what that might look like aesthetically, he couldn't say — except that it will be great.

"We are trying to get our ideas developed, really understand the project's transportation solutions and compose a street grid that will enable an amazing project," he said. "It's premature to comment or speculate on design, but however the design ends up, it will be world-class."

Designs for Plank's projects in Baltimore so far suggest a predilection for adding flair to conversions of iconic buildings.

To the exposed brick of the old soap factory in Tide Point, Under Armour added a basketball court and turned one wall of a cafeteria into a plant-filled mass of green.

On Recreation Pier in Fells Point, where Sagamore is building a hotel, designs by Beatty Harvey Coco Architects included a whiskey bar, pool and boat launch where just-marrieds can motor into the sunset.

A massive Under Armour-branded gym and store, opening in the former Bank of America building at 10 Light St., makes use of the bank vault as a lounge.

In Port Covington, a red-roofed distillery that evokes farm buildings designed by Baltimore's Ayers Saint Gross, is now under construction.

Tom Liebel, a principal at Baltimore's Marks Thomas Architects, said a clear Plank style hasn't yet emerged, but the companies he's selected so far suggest a commitment to architectural excellence, as well as a disciplined sense of image.

"They are very conscious of brand, obviously, and that tends to work its way throughout all their projects," he said. "There's a common theme from the retail stores to their office environment."

In Port Covington, where Plank's team is converting the city garage and former Sam's Club, it is also adapting from the existing environment.

But Liebel said the area, much of which is a patchwork of formerly industrial and already cleared sites, may provide the opportunity to introduce a different aesthetic.

Del. Brooke Lierman, whose district includes Fells Point, was part of a state delegation that met with Sagamore this summer to discuss the firm's plans. Lierman said they talked about public transit, parks and outreach to community groups. She said she's not expecting lots of historic redevelopment, akin to the Recreation Pier.

"They want to build a world-class, inclusive, transit-oriented green development," she said. "I don't know what the project in Port Covington will look like, but I get the sense that it is different."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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