A STRUCTURE NOT BUILT TO LAST Success creates dilemma for Maryland Institute

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The temporary Japanese sculpture studio at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, a simple pitched-roof structure made of telephone poles, Fiberglas sheeting and corrugated metal, has been selected to receive one of the highest honors ever accorded a work of American architecture.

Designed by RTKL Associates and built at a cost of just over $100,000, the studio is one of a handful of buildings chosen to receive a 1991 national honor award in the annual design program sponsored by the American Institute of Architects.

The AIA won't officially announce the recipients until its awards dinner in Washington on Feb. 6, but the winning architects already have been notified. The decision makes the sculpture studio one of only 12 buildings in Maryland to be recognized by the AIA program since it was launched in 1949.

It also poses something of a dilemma for the Maryland Institute, which built the studio for Japanese artists visiting the United States on a one-year residency and didn't plan to keep it up after they left. The national award marks the second honor for the building, which also was cited in the awards program sponsored by the Baltimore AIA chapter last fall. The recognition has prompted some discussion among Maryland Institute administrators and others about whether the building ought to stay up longer, but so far there have been no decisions.

To complicate matters, materials used to build the studio were not especially durable, and the building has no heating, plumbing or other utilities. In addition, Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which oversees changes in the Bolton Hill historic district, has ordered that the building come down no later than Aug. 31, 1991.

Fred Lazarus, the college president, said he knew RTKL submitted the building for consideration but was not in a position to say whether it won, pending the AIA announcement. He said he was very pleased with the attention the building has received in general and was undecided about the idea of trying to keep the building up or move it after the Japanese sculptors finish their work later this year.

"I don't have a firm position as to what will happen to the building," he said. On one hand "it would be a pity to see a building that has received so much recognition removed, even if it was designed to be temporary. But I am also a believer that something of beauty doesn't have to be there forever. Christo's 'Running Fence' was wonderful, but it couldn't last forever. The temporary aspect [of the sculpture studio] is part of its excitement and beauty."

Apart from its temporary nature, the building was an unusual commission in many ways for RTKL, which is best known for its large office buildings and other mixed-use urban projects in the United States and abroad.

The nature of the building itself was unusual: to house four Japanese sculptors who were coming to Baltimore to build a 33-foot-tall sculpture of Fudo Myoh-oh, an incarnation of Buddha who traditionally serves as a guardian keeping out evil spirits. Once it is completed, the sculpture will be moved to an as-yet-undetermined permanent location and the studio could be dismantled.

RTKL designed the building free of charge to help the college keep costs down. To come up with an appropriate design, the company sponsored an in-house competition that drew 15 entries. The winning design was by Keith Mehner, a 28-year-old architect who has since left the firm to join the Kerns Group in Washington. Ted Neiderman was the partner in charge of the project.

The building was constructed in a dell next to the Mount Royal train station, which houses the institute's main sculpture studio. As designed by Mr. Mehner, it is 41 feet wide, 56 feet long and 50 feet high -- about five stories tall. Its roof is made of corrugated galvanized steel held up by wood posts, and at ground level the sides are made of Fiberglas sheets that are reminiscent of rice paper. A skylight is made of the same material.

Mr. Mehner said before the building was constructed that the design reflects a "Japanese simplicity" in the emphasis on natural light and use of color and building materials. The materials were selected for their ability to be reused as well as their ease of assembly and disassembly.

In the local AIA awards program, jurors said the studio is reminiscent of the Ise shrine in Japan, "which is built and occupied while its twin is demounted in a continuous cycle. It proves that architecture can be significant without being permanent.

"We respect the restraint shown in the pavilion," they added. "It PTC had all the opportunities to be terribly cute but is actually quite simple and elegant. Formally and structurally, putting the pitched roof inside the post and beam frame is very successful. The spare and direct use of materials is well handled."

RTKL representatives either could not be reached or declined to comment on the building, pending the formal announcement of the award. Mr. Mehner also declined to discuss the award. But when asked about the fate of the building, he said he would rather see it taken down than left up and not properly maintained or altered to withstand the elements better.

"My only concern is that it was designed with temporary materials," he said. "The aesthetic appeal is there for a year, but not much longer. I don't want to see it stay the way it is. It was designed as a temporary building, and if it's going to stay up longer, someone ought to take a look at it. It needs to be redesigned for permanent use."

Mr. Lazarus said he may have to ask CHAP for permission to leave the building in place slightly past Aug. 31 because the sculptors may not be finished with their work by then. But if the building must be taken down altogether, he said, that presents a question of where it might be moved and how it might be reused.

The design was successful because it expresses the building's temporary nature and the fact that it houses Japanese sculptors, Mr. Lazarus said. "If you changed its function and purpose, would it be a great design? Would it be as exciting on a different site? I don't know that we've addressed those questions."

At the same time, "All of us respect and appreciate the quality of the building," he said. "We want to make sure we don't give it up without a lot of thought."

Past winners of AIA citations

The Japanese sculpture studio is the 12th Maryland building to be cited for a national AIA award since the program began in 1949. It is the first building in Baltimore to be so honored since 1978 and the first for RTKL Associates since 1973, when the firm was cited for the design of Fountain Square in Cincinnati.

The previous 11 Maryland winners include:

*Alexander S. Cochran residence in Baltimore by Alexander S. Cochran -- Award of Merit, 1951.

*Girl Scout Lodge, Camp Woodlands, Annapolis, by Rogers, Taliaferro and Lamb (predecessor of RTKL) -- Award of Merit, 1954

*Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore by Pietro Belluschi and Rogers, Taliaferro and Lamb -- Award of Merit, 1960.

*Westinghouse Electric Corp. Molecular Electronics Division building in Anne Arundel County by Vincent G. Kling -- Award of Merit, 1964.

*River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda by Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon -- Award of Merit, 1966.

*John Deere Co. building in Timonium, Rogers Taliaferro Kostritsky Lamb -- Honor Award, 1968.

*Bolton Square town houses in Baltimore, Hugh Newell Jacobsen -- Honor Award, 1969.

*Phillips/Brewer Residence in Chevy Chase, Hartman-Cox Architects, Honor Award, 1970.

*Center Stage in Baltimore by James R. Grieves Associates -- Honor Award, 1978; Robert Elliott Residence in Chevy Chase by Hugh Newell Jacobsen -- Honor Award, 1978.

*Tidewater House on the Eastern Shore by Hugh Newell Jacobsen -- Honor Award, 1985.

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