The proposed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins will feature two "floating" three-dimensional cubes made of glass to symbolize transparency and collaboration.
The proposed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins will feature two "floating" three-dimensional cubes made of glass to symbolize transparency and collaboration. (Johns Hopkins)

Johns Hopkins University showed preliminary designs to city officials for the first time Thursday for a standout modernist structure it plans to build on the south end of its Homewood campus to house the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute.

The plans elicited mixed reviews from the city’s design panel with some members saying the proposed structure might hinder the very connection between the campus community and the city at large that designers seek to foster.

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Designed by renowned international architect Renzo Piano in a partnership with the Baltimore architecture firm Ayers Saint Gross, the institute — born out of a $150 million gift from the foundation in 2017 meant to spur the creation of a space for the civil discussion of divisive issues — will feature two cubelike structures that stand off the ground, one housing classrooms, offices, a cafe and meeting spaces, and a smaller one containing a multipurpose auditorium space.

The clear-glass building, situated on what is now a parking lot beside the former Baltimore Marine Hospital on Wyman Park Drive, is meant to visually embody the foundation’s aim to promote dialogue and problem-solving in a transparent manner, Johns Hopkins officials said.

“We’re serious about it being open to the broader community,” said Elizabeth Smyth, executive director of the Agora Institute. “Those on the outside can look in and see the work, and those on the inside can be reminded of the stakeholders whose work they’re doing on their behalf.”

While members of the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel said they commended the team’s intellectually minded approach to the institute, they also voiced concern that the structure will seem uninviting to those outside the campus.

“The public and the community can see this as ... democracy at a distance,” said Osbourne Anthony, an architect and panel member. “The people piece just isn’t fully worked out yet.”

Echoing this sentiment, Pavlina Ilieva, the panel’s chairperson, said she worries that the institute could come across as an impervious “building on a hill.”

“It’s important to reconcile this inside-outside approach with how it communicates with the rest of the world,” she said.

Piano, of Italy, is known for designing distinctive modernist structures including The Shard, a 95-story tower in London, and the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building in New York.

“This is an art piece,” said Lee Coyle, Johns Hopkins’ senior director of planning & architecture. “[Piano] wants this building to be more expressive.”

The proposed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins will feature two "floating" three-dimensional cubes made of glass to symbolize transparency and collaboration.
The proposed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins will feature two "floating" three-dimensional cubes made of glass to symbolize transparency and collaboration. (Johns Hopkins)

Coyle and Ayers Saint Gross principal Stephen Wright reiterated that while the Agora Institute project remains in an early design stage, they will take the criticism under consideration. They pledged to study the campus and incorporate materials to signal continuity and cohesion between new and old.

With construction expected to begin in fall 2020 and conclude by summer 2022, the institute is meant to reflect the themes of an ancient Athenian agora in its promise to serve as a gathering space for scholars and citizens to exchange ideas, campus officials said. Featuring a covered outdoor space, a planned rooftop terrace and space for art exhibitions and speaker presentations, officials said they envision the building reflecting the university’s commitment to collaborative democracy.

"This new building promises to be a gathering place for scholars and citizens to model the robust exchanges of ideas that are essential for healthy democracies,” Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels said in a statement. “Renzo Piano’s design perfectly embodies the spirit of the SNF Agora by creating a space for thoughtful, deliberative, and collaborative engagement with the greatest challenges facing liberal democracy.”

Johns Hopkins, like other universities, has become enmeshed with the larger dialogue surrounding campus culture and student-led activism in an age of divisive politics. Last spring, the university called in police to arrest a group of student protesters who staged a monthlong sit-in at the university’s main administration building to oppose the administration’s plan to create a private university police force. Students also called on the school to end its contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and advocate more forcefully against police brutality.

Smyth said the university hopes the building can serve as a 21st-century symbol of civil discourse.

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“It’s an exciting opportunity not just for Johns Hopkins University but for Baltimore to have a building of this type,” she said. “It’s truly a commitment that we’re in this together.”

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, based in Athens, Greece, and named for a Greek shipping magnate, works to promote arts and culture, education, health and social welfare around the world. Niarchos died in 1996 and left his estate to form the foundation.

The institute’s faculty will be joined by 10 visiting scholars each year, Smyth said. The center also will incorporate sustainable design features and an exterior landscape that will offer a natural habitat to indigenous wildlife.

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