PIER 6 REAPPEARS ON MUSIC SCENE New concert pavilion boasts more space, better facilities

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An architect isn't usually rewarded for a job well done by having his or her building torn down less than 10 years after it opens. But that's practically a common occurrence for Todd Dalland and his colleagues at FTL Associates, the New York-based tensile architecture specialists.

As designers of fabric-covered pavilions and other temporary structures, they see their creations put up and taken down all the time. Sometimes, they even get to design the replacements, such as the $4.9 million Pier 6 Concert Pavilion that opens Thursday with a concert by Ben E. King.

The new pavilion was built to replace a smaller one that FTL, originally known as Future Tents Limited, helped design for the non-profit Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts in 1980-'81. It had to be replaced because the fabric covering had a 10-year life span and was worn out.

But if Mr. Dalland regrets the demise of his first Baltimore concert tent, it doesn't show. He simply took advantage of the new commission to create an even more spectacular design the second time around.

It's not the same building at all," he said. "To make it 50 percent bigger, we had to go from one side of the pier to the other. There's more of a feeling of a Gothic cathedral on the water than a giant horseshoe crab."

A "permanent tent" may seem to be a contradiction in terms, since tents are by definition portable and collapsible. But the technology of tensile structures has become so advanced and the coverings have become so durable that they can now be guaranteed to last 20 years -- longer than some buildings of glass and steel.

Since working on its first structure in Baltimore -- and partly as a result of it -- FTL has emerged as one of the nation's foremost experts in the design of tensile structures that serve as park pavilions, outdoor stages, even military halls. Another recent project is a portable outdoor performance facility for the New York Philharmonic that can be set up in eight hours.

Mr. Dalland, a 39-year-old architect who has been fascinated with tensile structures since his student days at Cornell University, said the commission to design a second pavilion for Baltimore's waterfront was particularly significant to him because it mirrors the growth of the firm he heads along with Nicholas Goldsmith. In 1981, "we were just the roof architects," he said. This time, "we're the architects for the whole project."

Another important difference is that 10 years ago, no one knew how soon the concert pavilion might have to come down to make way for other development, so the backstage facilities were put in trailers. Because of the first facility's success, city officials have committed the land until the year 2016. In turn, the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which also runs the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, decided to increase the size of the facility and invest in permanent dressing rooms and other support spaces.

One constant has been the site, which still offers panoramic views of the harbor. In the past 10 years it has been surrounded by a number of new buildings, including such architectural duds as Harrison's Inn and Scarlett Place. But because it has water on three sides, the designers didn't have to relate their building so much to its immediate neighbors as they might if it were in the heart of the central business district -- and that gave them the freedom to be more sculptural.

With a tensile structure, "you have to free up your thinking in terms of traditional building forms," said project architect Bill Lenart. "This is more of a sculpture. It's a different kind of design. You have to pay attention to orientation to the wind and the views."

The new pavilion has six masts instead of two, and they rise 70 feet instead of 50. Side openings are 30 feet high rather than 15. A concrete base replaces the previous combination of railroad ,, ties and blacktop. Held down by cables, the roof is the same shade of off-white as before but now it's a Teflon-covered nylon that is stiffer than the old material and has a higher-quality finish. In all, there are 3,341 seats under cover and another 1,000 on the lawn, as opposed to 1,933 seats under cover before and 1,200 on the lawn.

As opposed to the old pavilion, which was shaped sort of like a camel with irregular humps, this one is more elongated, more regularized, more classical in form. From the water, it seems to hug the pier, rather than sit on it. Inside, it has more of the rhythm and formality of a cathedral, only it's breezier. The stage is 2 feet higher than before, and sightlines are better. Acoustics are supposed to be better, too, although audiences won't be able to tell for sure until performances begin. In every way, it seems to have settled in for the long haul.

Another sign of the new permanence is the upgrading of backstage facilities. The pavilion now has more ticket windows, restrooms and concession areas for patrons, up to five dressing rooms and a lounge for performers, and expanded offices for the staff. There are also two new storage rooms offstage and more space for trucks to unload equipment.

To house it all, the architects designed a series of two-story structures meant to evoke a "playful waterfront village," with shapes that look like children's building blocks but were each "warped out of phase a little like the tent," as Mr. Dalland puts it. Made of utilitarian masonry block in a variety of earth tones and topped with standing seam metal roofs, they provide a friendly backdrop for the pavilion itself.

Under the tent, one of the surprises is the terra cotta seating, fixed rather than fold-up. At the suggestion of financial (x consultant and board member George Piendak, planners used the same seats as those ordered for the Camden Yards stadium and negotiated a rock-bottom price. Though custom-made for Baltimore's old-fashioned new ballpark, the seats look quite at home under the futuristic tent as well.

If there is one place where the design and construction team fell down a bit, it is in the way they addressed the city's goal of providing free access all along the waterfront -- admittedly a problem for a concert operation. According to general manager Karen Ritgert, the performing arts center has agreed to provide public access to the pier and its lawn every day except when there is a concert, because sponsors don't want the general public mixing with crews setting up for a performance. The city also plans eventually to rebuild the bulkheading around the pier and increase the width of the promenade.

But while they are permitting limited access to the pier, planners have not let up on their attempts to discourage people from gathering on Pier 5 or the east side of the Lower Jones Falls -- "the cheap seats" -- and watching concerts for free. As of last week, 6-foot screens were being erected on either side of the pavilion to block views toward the stage from off the pier. Unfortunately, the city opted for a standard chain-link fence to serve as the basis of its screen, a thoroughly pedestrian material that detracts from the special geometry of the pavilion and has no place on an Inner Harbor promenade. If officials want to discourage freeloaders, surely they can come up with a screen more in keeping with the spirit of the project than that.*

Now that the pavilion is up, the performing arts center plans even more changes, as funds allow. There is room on each side of the stage to install large video screens that would show close-ups of performers, if a sponsor emerges. The entrance plaza and auto turnaround area will be enhanced. And an even more ambitious plan calls for the open-air pavilion to be enclosed for year-round use. FTL designed it with the capability of accepting heaters and side panels that would enclose the space, much the way the owners of Phillips Harborplace restaurant use side flaps to enclose the dining space under their awnings in the winter.

"We're already the second largest concert facility in the city,aftethe(Baltimore) Arena," said facility manager John Wright. "We have more seats than the Lyric or the Meyerhoff. And now we can do almost anything."

Pier 6 pavilion

Grand opening: Thursday, with a concert by Ben E. King.

Owner: Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts.

Architect: FTL Associates; Todd Dalland, principal in charge of design; Bill Lenart, project architect.

Construction manager: Whiting Turner Contracting Co.

Number of seats: 3,341 under cover and 1,000 on the lawn.

Cost: $4.9 million.

Box office hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and 11 a.m. to intermission on performance days.

For tickets and information: TeleCharge, 625-1400; (800) 638-2444 outside Maryland.

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