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Degenerate City: From Landmark to Eyesore in Under $100 Million

Degenerate City: From Landmark to Eyesore in Under $100 Million
(J.M. Giordano)

How does one begin a design journey with a historic landmark in a prime, idiosyncratic location and arrive at a $100 million non-place somewhere between an East German superblock and Midwestern strip mall? That's a question I'd like to pose to all parties involved in the redevelopment of Hampden's once-beloved Rotunda shopping center, now an unlikely chimera assembled from architects and urban planners' worst nightmares. Chiefly, I direct that at New Jersey-based developer Hekemian & Co. and local architecture firm Design Collective. The ironically named "ICON Residences at The Rotunda" somehow manages to be blandly offensive and almost obscures its supposed centerpiece. This might just be the death knell of Hampden's cool.

Looking up Chestnut Avenue, it seems as if the entire neighborhood has been walled-off like the Mexico of Trump's imagination. That has less to do with height, and more to do with clumsy massing and a lazy consideration of topography—the complex is utterly looming and unapproachable from the south. It turns its back on the neighborhood, and that ass is much too fat.

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From a distance, the 38th Street facade reminds me of East Berlin's infamous Karl-Marx-Allee, a strip of impossibly long midrise apartment blocks in the Socialist Classical style. Originally dedicated to Stalin, the boulevard, according to anecdote, still houses former secret police officers who were given apartments as rewards for their loyalty to the communist party. Up close, the brooding East German blocks have more warmth, character, and pedestrian life than ICON's southern exposure. Chestnut Avenue dead-ends at a wall of chintzy-looking brick that's half-assedly massed to look like rowhouses but comes across as an afterthought.

There's a tiny fenced-off stairway that doesn't appear to go anywhere, so if you're walking to the retail at the Rotunda from The Avenue, you have to walk all the way around the superblock to get in. That procession leads you past a contiguous facade line that's bizarrely out of scale with the opposite side of the street's eclectic houses and set back in patches of grass that have all the appeal of a drainage ditch.

Pedestrians can enter the complex from a concrete staircase, past some loading docks and blank walls, on Elm Avenue. There's no architectural nod to the neighborhood across the street, and the ICON's inward-facing retail strategy and lack of street-level activation is counterintuitive to the developer's goal of "opening up" the old shopping center.

Once inside the courtyard, we're greeted with a bunch of asphalt and some landscaping reminiscent of a class-B medical office on the periphery of a "Towne Centre"-style strip mall in suburbia. I can't imagine myself ever picking up takeout and wanting to linger here to eat it. The space feels claustrophobic and vaguely sinister in its basic-ness. The solid wall of apartments blocks any view of the city below, and cheapens the circa-1920s Rotunda itself into just another piece of Disneyland urbanism. Whatever off-the-rack detailing they slapped onto the new buildings in an attempt to blend in with the historic structure does no favors to the original nor the impostor.

And that strip mall feeling isn't helped by the car-centric approach to 41st Street. There, new infill buildings could've given the corner a more inviting, sidewalk-oriented quality. Instead, the thoroughfare remains inhospitable to pedestrians and any sense of enclosure the street desperately needs. The 11-acre site had the potential to bridge the void between the dense city below and the leafier mansions and towers-in-the-park of North Baltimore. Instead, the development is a literal and psychogeographical wall between Hampden and the neighboring areas. Worse, the new construction hides—rather than highlights—the Rotunda itself. Everything about the buildings' placement, their orientation and massing, and their relationships to the streets they border feels like a deliberate slap to the faces of logic and taste. There's a precedent of large residential developments—from Moshe Safdie's beloved Habitat 67 in Montreal to Bjarke Ingels' Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen—designed to mimic the very elevation change this site came with. Both of those examples use creative massing to replicate the texture of neighborhoods like Hampden in the typology of a high-rise. It's easy to imagine a continuation of Hampden's grid and reinterpretation of its form vocabulary up the slope, rising to frame views of the historic Rotunda.

But it's also not hard to imagine how this existent ungodly horse-built-by-committee might have been assembled—parking minimums, required setbacks, budget cuts, obligatory nods to "contextuality"—it's a perfect storm of everything wrong with lazy architecture. Knowing how many hoops that horse had to jump through in Baltimore's convoluted development environment, the outcome is either baffling or makes perfect sense, depending on one's level of cynicism. This monstrosity has been in the works for over a decade. Strangely, earlier plans for the site that involved two separate but taller structures were scrapped. Those buildings might've been ugly too, but not nearly as obtrusive as the solid-wall trainwreck we have to live with now.

That's the thing about all this terrible architecture: we do have to live with it. For a very long time. And it's insulting. Developers treat Baltimore like it's a design backwater so desperate for new construction that we'd beg them to build a log cabin out of their turds in exchange for tax breaks. But many of us actually do have taste—believe it or not, that's why so many of us stay in a city that's beautiful despite the best efforts of the wealthy suburbanites who swoop in to "revitalize" us with monstrosities like this. I, millennial, would like to go on record as saying I'm not interested in paying a premium to live in a tacky simulacrum of "urban living." Is the marketing strategy here to erect a building so ugly and so unavoidably visible that the only way to live in Hampden and not have a view of it is to live inside of it? If so, this development might just be considered a success. If not, please plant the world's largest greenwall to hide this thing. Or punch some holes in it. The Rotunda and Hampden deserve so much better.

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