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If ever a building were aswirl with ideas, this is it.

BWas its unusual shape meant to signify a galaxy of stars, whirling around the cosmos? Or the funnel of a tornado, sweeping over the land? Or the body of a hermit crab, crawling out of its shell?

Those are just a few of the images conjured up by the American Visionary Art Museum, a most extraordinary building planned for the south shore of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Two years ago, city officials agreed to sell the curving brick Trolley Works building at the intersection of Key Highway and Covington Street -- temporary base for the operation that ran Baltimore's trolley buses -- to a group that wants to build a national museum and education center to showcase works by "visionary" or "outsider" artists -- self-taught individuals not influenced by mainstream art.

Since then, the group has developed a plan not only for recycling the Trolley Works building but enlarging it with an addition that echoes the curves of the original building and appears to be in a constant state of motion. Not since the National Aquarium in Baltimore has an Inner Harbor project displayed such architectural verve and energy.

At first glance, one may be tempted to classify this design as one of the first local examples of deconstructivism, the in-vogue architectural style in which walls or floors are built at unconventional, often unsettling, angles -- frequently as a commentary on the chaos and confusion of society.

There is indeed a hint of deconstructivism in the way elements of the new building wrap around and pop through the shell of the existing structure. But there is far more to this powerful composition than the desire to be trendy, starting with the sensitive way it follows the bend of Key Highway and nestles into its setting between the harbor and Federal Hill. More so than deconstructivism, this is an expressionistic design that reveals its museum role in a non-threatening way and fits well with the package of attractions already around the harbor.

In a sense, this sculptural assemblage is a metaphor for the creative process of the visionary artists whose work will be displayed inside. Many of them are known for taking "found objects" such as toothpicks or matchsticks or eggshells, and transforming them into works of art that express an intensely personal vision. On a larger scale, that is precisely what the designers of the visionary art museum have done: They have transformed their found object, the funky brick warehouse, into a work of art that promises to be as intriguing and eccentric as any of the works inside -- and every bit as spirited.


This remarkable building is the product of a collaboration between two designers who have not worked together before: Rebecca Swanston, architect and South Baltimore resident, and Alex Castro, artist, architect and museum exhibit designer.

They were brought together by Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, head of the group planning the museum, to design a 25,000-square-foot building that includes space for permanent and changing exhibits, staff offices, a library, theater/classroom, cafe and rooftop sculpture garden -- all within the tiny parcel at the foot of Federal Hill.

Their solution was to retain the three-story Trolley Works building, previously used as a paint factory and warehouse, and construct another rectangular brick building at the south end of the block to house mechanical systems and functional spaces such as restrooms and elevators. Between these two brick "bookends" they created a swirling, whirling hurricane of a building that ties the complex into a unified whole.

Starting at the entrance on Key Highway, visitors will ascend a ramp that gradually leads up the perimeter of the building, following the curve of the road. Once inside, they will find a helical system of stairs and bridges that provides access to the various exhibit areas on the periphery and eventually leads to the rooftop sculpture garden, which will have a panoramic view of the Inner Harbor.

Mr. Castro said the idea was to create an "ascending gyre" that imparts a museum experience unlike any other.

"It's the whole sense of dynamism -- the torque -- that intrigued us from the beginning," he said. "We wanted the building to prepare you, gently, to see something that is different from what you may have experienced in the past. . . . It's an attempt to say: Here's something that will open you up to a new way

of looking at art."

The character of interior spaces is still being determined, and the quality of detailing will be critical to their success. In the preliminary plans, the designers created distinct exhibit areas where visitors may study the objects on display and learn about their creators. Then they linked those areas on each of three levels to a circulation "bridge" that looks through windows out over the harbor and gives viewers a chance to pause briefly before moving on to the next exhibit.

While striving for a feeling of intimacy, the designers also wanted to break down the barriers between art on display and the viewers who come to see it. "So many times, museums put something in front of you as if to say, 'There it is. Kneel before it,' " Mr. Castro said. "This is a museum where you are supposed to discover it gently. It would be nice if people went through with a spirit of wonder and were enlightened by the facts of the works, without any sense of confrontation."

This struggle to come up with a new kind of museum is also reflected in the exterior design. The curving blue walls in the middle -- to be made of an as-yet-undetermined material -- swirl about the more conventional brick structures as if they can't quite contain the artistic energy inside. Like all successful architectural onomatopoeia, the building looks like what it does, hinting that something unusual is going on inside. But in this case the building almost seems to be commenting on itself, providing what amounts to a visual essay on the difficulty of using a finite, traditional structure to showcase something that is infinite and ethereal -- the visions of the human mind. Underscoring this commentary is the fact that the building's shape lends itself to any number of interpretations -- it can be read as a womb or crustacean or the petals of a rose or ocean waves lapping at the shore, depending on the viewer.

"It's all of those things -- and none," Mr. Castro said. "You're meant to pick up on the ambiguity. If it becomes any one of those things, it fails."


If there is a potential drawback to this genuinely visionary museum -- due to begin construction this fall if funding comes through -- it is that its landlocked site and unusual shape severely limit the options for expansion.

What if the museum is phenomenally successful and needs room to grow, as the Baltimore Museum of Art has over the years? The swirling curves provide an engaging signature for the project and work well with the hill and harbor, but they would make expanding the building as difficult as adding onto an egg. At the same time, if it didn't have the Inner Harbor location, the museum might never gain the exposure and draw the crowds that could make it successful enough to expand.

Planning for growth is important for any museum, but it is clear from the size and shape of this building that its sponsors decided early on to limit its size, reasoning that it would work best at a small, intimate scale. If it ever becomes so successful it starts bursting at the seams, Ms. Hoffberger said, the board most likely would construct a satellite museum in another location.

Given that reasoning, Ms. Swanston and Mr. Castro have provided a delightfully eccentric repository for what ought to be a delightfully eccentric collection. It is not only potentially a breakthrough project in terms of their own careers, but a breakthrough in the way museums might remove some of the distance between the art on display and the people who come to experience it. Above all, it exemplifies the design vigor and dynamism that have helped make the Inner Harbor so successful in the past -- and are needed more than ever to keep it a success in the future.

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