In the City That Reads, as Baltimore bills itself, could any building be more important than a library?

More to the point, could any building be more susceptible at the moment to abuse from architects looking for prominent civic commissions that will allow them to foist their idiosyncritic design visions on an unsuspecting public?

Two library projects in Baltimore - the Peabody Institute's recently completed Music Library and Academic Building at St. Paul and Monument streets, and the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, proposed for the southeast corner of Franklin Street and Park Avenue - illustrate ways architects sometimes use public funds to carry out very private design visions. Above all, they show the kind of urban mongrels architects leave behind when they violate the public trust by designing buildings without proper regard for their sites.

If ever there were a client of architecture that ought to understand the significance of fitting buildings into an area, it is the Peabody Institute on historic Mount Vernon Place.

The Peabody campus has stood the test of time precisely because its architects, for the most part, took care to "listen to the melody" and play along with it, even as they were creating a center for music education.

The architect of the $10 million music library, Charles Richter of Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc., made gestures toward fitting it in with the rest of the Peabody complex. He put it on a podium that lines up with an existing midblock plaza. He used a brick skin, arched windows and other features seen on neighboring structures. He linked it directly to Leakin Hall and four 1840s-era town houses facing Mount Vernon Place.

But Peabody's tight construction budget, a combination of public and private funds, would not allow for the intricate stonework and elaborate craftsmanship that are hallmarks of other buildings on the square. So Mr. Richter employed a kind of stripped-down, flattened-out, abstracted classicism that vaguely echoes traditional Mount Vernon architecture without costing as much.

To make matters worse, rather than accepting his budget limitations and playing the building down, he took more than a few steps that make the building stand out like some kind of Edwardian bank. The east wall window configuration is rigidly symmetrical, and the shiny ironspot brick chosen for the exterior is unlike the brick on any other building in the area. The ugly brownstone banding is another non sequltur. And the tall arched windows are not only different in dimension from others nearby but have a floor running right in front of them -- a faux pas even first-year architecture students know not to commit. The building is poorly detailed to boot, with brick stringcourses that don't line up and stepped granite edging near the sidewalk that seems tacked on like the roof flashing of some cheap suburban McMansion.

Inside, too, the building has its share of design flaws, including floor plans that have so little to do with the symmetrical exterior they seem to have been designed by a different architect entirely. The windowless dance studios in the basement induce claustrophobia, and the floor with the best views of the city has been given over to mechanical equipment.

Even the four restored town houses are a disappointment. Rather than adding life to the street, the houses have been butchered so they are only one room deep. With inoperative doors and hermetically sealed windows, they seem pasted onto the library like fake cardboard storefronts.

However serviceable this stark new building may be, nothing about it speaks of or to Mount Vernon. It is to the rest of the Peabody campus what lip syncing is to real singing --- hollow, vacant, never quite in step with the melody.

Even more controversial is the proposed Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a $7.4 million building that would be just west of, and connected to, the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street. If Peabody's library was a song sung off key, this is Roseanne Barr screeching the national anthem.

Construction would require the demolition of two perfectly fine 1850s-era town houses on Franklin Street, a tragedy in itself. But the real issue here is that the proposed replacement defies expectations of what a well-behaved library ought to be, especially in the Cathedral Hill historic district.

The most glaring feature of the proposed design is a large, hooded window wall that pops out of the two-story base like a foreign sportscar's retractable headlight, stuck in the Up position. On the Park Avenue side is a curving aluminum canopy that looks as if the wing of a small plane fell from the sky and crashed into the building's loading dock -- except that it is the front entrance. The rest of the building has a spare, unadorned, industrial quality, with strip windows recessed here and there in a highly studied way.

At first glance this project looks like much of the work coming out of the West Coast, by deconstructivist architects exploring the use of inexpensive, industrial materials to make Jarring, disquieting forms. But the real roots of this design go back to the work of European architects active before World War II, from Austrian Adolf "Ornament is a Crime" Loos to German expressionist Erich Mendelsohn to Erik Gunnar Asplund of Sweden. It is a collage of motifs that may have been fresh for their time but seem curi-ously out of place when translated to 1990s Baltimore.

What's especially surprising about this architectural bouillbaisse is that it comes from Ayers Saint Gross Inc., the local firm that did such a superb job on the renovation of the central library several years ago and has acquired a reputation for producing some of the most sensitive and contextual buildings in Baltimore. The firm went out on a limb with this one and came back with decidedly mixed reviews. The state's Architectural Review Board and the Maryland Historical Trust approved it, and the local American Institute of Architects chapter is giving it a design award. But the city's Architectural Review Board and the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation so far have withheld their approval.

After two lengthy review sessions, CHAP especially still wants design changes, but principal architect Fritz Read has put his foot down. He argues that the area around Park and Franklin is eclectic and that he is reinforcing that eclecticism by introducing a building of another idiom. He further argues that the corners of city blocks in that area have always been a place for a special statement - from church steeples to the curves of the Greyhound bus station - and that his building simply falls within that tradition.

State officials, meanwhile, say they've already paid $300,000 in design fees and can't afford to spend more for redesign. They say the architects are already working on construction drawings and can't change now.

Such arguments are insultingly weak. First, $300,000 is an obscene amount for a state agency to spend developing the design of a $7.4 million building that can't even get approved. Second, state officials should, never have instructed the architects to proceed with construction documents without the required city approvals. They shouldn't now try to browbeat CHAP into accepting their poor planning.

Meanwhile, the giant oculus remains the most troubling aspect of the building. Why do the patrons need such a large window, one might ask, if they're blind anyway? "Many of the legally blind patrons are actually partially sighted and would benefit from the northern light," the architects explain.

That may be. But whether the architects intended it or not, that Cyclops window comes across as a vicious parody of the people inside -- a giant, seeing eyeball to make fun of those who cannot see; a deformity in the cityscape to taunt those with physical deformities. If the building were an especially beautiful or delightful structure that enhanced the Cathedral Hill area, that would be one thing. And on another site it might be less jarring. But on this site, absent anything to make it fit in or seem like a Baltimore building, it seems to be merely an essay in deformity for the sake of deformity, which is in particularly poor taste given its intended use.

Even if the sight-impairment connection didn't hit so close to home, the building should be reconsidered for other reasons, including the blank wall it presents along most of Franklin Street and the size of the large glass window, a tempting target for vandals. The architect's desire to create a special building is commendable. But next to the well-worn Pratt, this design comes across as cocktail party architecture, a faddish, strangely mechanistic creation that is anything but welcoming and destined to look out of date even before it's complete. It may indeed be a very good library for the blind. The question is, what about those who have to look at it?

Both projects exemplify a chronic design attitude that is ruining cities today. What they share is a decision by a willful architect to play up the object and make a personal design statement rather than defer to the rich urban fabric that already exists. Each chose to be aberrant, rather than to conform. Each building ends up fragmenting, when it ought to unify. The basic problem is that many architects and clients have lost the ability to tell when to be a soloist and when to be part of the ensemble - and no one else is directing them.

"One of the greatest shortcomings of most modern cities," educator Witold Rybczynski wrote, "is the apparent inability to produce large numbers of unassuming, but satisfying buildings that can serve as background for the occasional important landmark. Instead, what we have are cities composed increasingly of aspiring landmarks, which is, to say cities without any landmarks at all.

What makes this trend especially troubling is that architecture, once built, is more durable and public than other arts. If a painting is no good, the owner can put it in a closet or throw it away. But no one can throw away a building. It has an obligation to play a role in the larger environment. It owes compatibility to its neighbors and accommodation to people walking by.

Peabody's library was bad enough - a surprisingly discordant note. If the city and state move ahead with the current irresponsible design for the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, they will be making the same mistake all over again only worse.

The irony, of course, is that these peculiar private visions could never be realized without public consent. But if members of the public are satisfied with the way their tax dollars are used, then perhaps they deserve what they get. As the critic Lewis Mumford once said, "Architecture, like government, is about as good as a community deserves. If sometimes architecture becomes frozen music, we have only ourselves to blame when it is a pompous blare of meaningless sounds."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad