Walking along Mount Royal Avenue from Maryland Institute College of Art to the University of Baltimore, what struck me most was the corridor's abject seediness: The buildings had a thick coating of decades-old industrial grime, there were strip bars across the street from the University of Baltimore, mega-sized roaches and a restroom mockup peeked out from the broad windows of the Odorite Building, prostitutes brazenly plied their trade at the corners of Preston and Charles streets. In August 1982, I was a kid from the suburbs starting law school in the city, and this was my first view of student life in Baltimore. The then-new John and Frances Angelos Law School sat squat and brown at the corner of Mount Royal and Maryland avenues, fronted by a sea of mud where the plaza and Edgar Allan Poe statue now sit. It was depressing.
Thirty-one years later, this same area is a thriving arts and education hub: Bounded at its northwest end by MICA's circular glass Gateway building, the walk southeast toward Charles around to Penn Station is markedly more pleasant and interesting, and the University of Baltimore's new John and Frances Angelos building is the critical architectural link that unifies the art school's Gateway and Beaux Arts main building with its design companions: the new law school and Penn Station, the renovated Lyric, the Associated Jewish Charities building, and the grand Mount Royal B&O station in between.
The new law center sits at the northwest corner of Charles and Mount Royal, 12 stories, clad in glass. It is unquestionably UB's landmark — tall and burly when seen from the north driving southbound on 83; approaching from the east by foot, its contemporary design and size fit in with other structures along Mount Royal. Like MICA's Brown Center and Gateway, it is all post-modern sleekness, and while it dwarfs UB's main academic center across Charles, its alternately opaque, reflective and clear glass gives it a lightness so that it does not overburden its smaller, more humble neighbor, a former car dealership.
The building could be cold but it is not — the structure bears landscaping on its multiple roofs and around its perimeter, as well as a recycled water stream and waterfalls at its rear, creating a green space sheltered from the street for students to break, talk and consider their place in the world. Like trying to visualize a poet's musing, it is folly to imagine what an architect thought when he or she designed a building — but it is fun, too, and worth a decent daydream. The Angelos Center is an asymmetrical stack of boxes and glass planes, the view inside sometimes transparent, sometimes obscured. I like to think that this reflects the law's relationship to human nature: We have rules, but they do not always fit the situation; the answers to legal problems are sometimes clear and direct, and we can get right to them; other times, the answers are obscured by circumstance, unfortunate consequences and bitter ends. Much like human experience, the boxes that form the structure do not align perfectly, but like the best human relationships, the alignment is not symmetrical but delicately balanced and complementary.
Looking at the building while walking south on Charles from Penn Station, another feature is immediately apparent: The building bears a design relationship with John Borofsky's much-reviled "Male/Female" statue. The brushed stainless steel statue with the dual-color neon heart has been hotly debated and mostly hated since it was built in 2004, primarily because it bore no relationship to the lovely Beaux Arts structure it faced and dwarfed. The new law school building gives it a design relationship, another modern structure, taller, more massive, but enjoying the same context. Critics have suggested that "Male/Female" looks like it is a lost traveler from an alien planet, and while that may be true, perhaps it has now found a home.
The University of Baltimore now has a beautifully designed and executed capstone structure for its urban campus, which completes three decades of patient and thoughtful redevelopment of the Mount Royal corridor, but larger questions still face the law students and faculty who will use it. While the university's neighborhood no longer has its seediness and its strip bars, and the peeking bugs of the Odorite Building are gone, Baltimore still suffers from the ongoing scourge of the drug trade. Perhaps the law students enjoying the benefits of the best that contemporary architecture has to offer Baltimore, enlightened by their professors and uplifted by the bold spirit of the Angelos Law Center, will be motivated to tackle the homelessness, drug crime and prostitution that has scattered just a few blocks east and west.
Stephen B. Awalt is an attorney in Towson. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun