COLUMBUS CENTER AWEIGH British architect busy developing 'splashy' design


The Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration is being called "the wave of the future." It may also look like one -- a giant wave about to crash into Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

That's one of the design concepts that British architect Richard Rogers has been exploring for the center, the $164 million "Smithsonian of the Seas" being planned for Piers 5 and 6.

One alternative "has a roof that is sort of like a wave, a number of waves," Mr. Rogers said during a visit to Baltimore earlier this year. "The basic idea was that the public would walk just underneath the wave. You could walk up to the top and have a view out over the harbor."

The wave design, he said, would be ideal exhibition and meeting space.

Meanwhile, it would provide a distinctive symbol for a multifaceted project that strives to put a "friendly face" on scientific research of the seas.

"In a way, it's like the Pompidou Centre," Mr. Rogers said, referring to the Parisian landmark he designed with Renzo Piano.

"What that center tries to do is say: I'm not just a museum. I'm not just a library. I'm a meeting place for people and the exchange of ideas."

The Christopher Columbus Center is one of the most eagerly anticipated downtown development projects, now that Oriole Park at Camden Yards is nearly complete. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has made it one of the major economic development initiatives of his administration.

"What Cape Canaveral is to space," he has said, "this center is to the seas."

As the first major U.S. project by Mr. Rogers -- who achieved international acclaim as designer of the Lloyd's of London headquarters, the Pompidou Centre and other high-tech masterpieces -- its design is sure to receive national attention.

Preliminary designs were to be unveiled when Mr. Rogers came to Baltimore to deliver a lecture in January.

But Christopher Columbus Center Development Inc., the non-profit group planning the project chaired by Stanley Heuisler, editor of Baltimore magazine, stopped short of releasing any details at that time. Officials now say that they hope to unveil a design before the General Assembly reconvenes in January.

Mr. Heuisler said that he doesn't want to release plans that turn out to be too expensive to build and must be scaled back.

"The days of 50 percent cost overruns are no longer there. What we show, we will build."

From the beginning, the plan has been to have five different components: a 135,000-square-foot research facility for Maryland's Center of Marine Biotechnology, a marine archaeology center where state officials can display the remains of shipwrecks and other artifacts uncovered in Maryland waters, a teaching center, exhibition spaces and up to 1,000 parking spaces.

All these components will be built under one roof -- and all at once -- on the west side of the combined Piers 5 and 6.

Mr. Heuisler describes it as a "Rubik's cube" combination.

The latest timetable calls for site work to begin early next year and for construction to begin in the fall of 1992, with completion by the end of 1994.

Once work is complete, the east side of the 11.4-acre site will have room for another phase of development -- up to 250,000 square feet of space for research facilities, high-tech companies or other features.

The wave design is one of several that Mr. Rogers' office has been testing against cost constraints and other factors. Another scheme, he said, has been described as "Pompidou Centre lying on its side." None rises more than six stories.

Whether the wave, or another design, gets built, Mr. Rogers is optimistic that the Christopher Columbus Center will help increase the public's awareness about the research going on inside.

"One's hope is that the amazingly exciting biotechnology and marine biotechnology work that's going on will start to be understood better by the public -- and that in being better understood, will affect what is being done as well," Mr. Rogers said. "That is the area I'm most interested in."

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