'Science on the half-shell' Columbus Center architect designs a "strong image."


The "Smithsonian of the Seas" has become "Science on the Half Shell."

A Canadian architect is proposing that the giant marine research center planned for Baltimore's Inner Harbor should not only help people learn about sea creatures but that it might look like one, too.

His design for the $161 million Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration calls for its exhibition area to be covered by a ribbed Teflon roof that is intentionally reminiscent of various forms of marine life.

"Like a giant shell or a mollusk, the sculptured white roof form will stand out during the day and glow like a beacon in the night," said architect Eberhard Zeidler.

The glass-enclosed exhibition area would adjoin a high-tech laboratory structure housing Maryland's Center of Marine Biotechnology, literally providing a "window on science" for an estimated 400,000 Inner Harbor visitors every year.

Officers of Christopher Columbus Center Development Inc., the quasi-public group planning the project, have been showing preliminary designs to state and city officials and will present them officially to state legislators this week.

State legislators have already allocated $1.5 million to the project and are being asked to allocate another $17.3 million during this General Assembly session.

In all, the project has public and private funding commitments of $80.2 million, and planners are seeking another $22.8 million from the federal government during the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. They hope to begin construction later this year and complete the initial phases by late 1994.

The design has begun to pick up nicknames for the way it combines laboratory space for researchers with a large public exhibition area designed to allow visitors to see the research work in progress. CCCD Chairman Stanley Heuisler says Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke dubbed it "science on the half shell."

"For 40 years I've been building buildings and people always say, 'It looks like . . .' " Mr. Zeidler said. "And there's nothing wrong with that. The most-loved buildings are the ones with strong images.

"The most important thing to me is that this will be an image for Baltimore, and people will remember it in the same way the [Sydney Opera House] is an image of Sydney or Canada Place is an image of Vancouver. It's important for buildings to be imageable," said Mr. Zeidler, who replaced Richard Rogers of London last fall as lead architect for the project.

Drawings indicate that the Columbus Center will rise five stories on an 11.4-acre parcel at the north end of Piers 5 and 6, just off Pratt Street.

The eastern half, facing Scarlett Place, will be a rectangular laboratory block with "subdued high-tech detailing." But the western half, facing the Pier 4 Power Plant, will have a more free-form roof enclosing 33,300 square feet of public exhibition space designed to showcase scientists at work.

The fiberglass-reinforced Teflon skin, stretched over steel framing, is intended not only to mimic biological forms but to express the "special purpose of the building" and beckon visitors inside, the architect says. Teflon lasts 25 years or more and will be self-cleaning, he added.

During a recent visit to Baltimore, Mr. Zeidler said he tried to create a place where children can become excited about marine science.

Mr. Heuisler said the design is still in a preliminary stage, but his board is very pleased with the architect's progress so far.

"It's a wonderful image, a curtain being pulled back for you, with all these mysteries inside," he said.

Mr. Zeidler's firm, the Zeidler Roberts Partnership of Toronto, was hired last fall after CCCD was unable to agree with Mr. Rogers on design fees.

Since then the German-born architect has worked around the clock to come up with a design to show state legislators. It is his third major downtown project, after the $200 million Gallery at Harborplace and an $85 million patient tower under design for the University of Maryland Medical Systems.

The Columbus Center will have four main components:

* Center of Marine Biotechnology, a 181,000-square-foot unit of the University of Maryland's six-division Maryland Biotechnology Institute, headed by Rita R. Colwell. The space will include state-of-the-art laboratories, support functions such as electron microscopy and magnetic resonance imaging, fish handling and storage facilities, and other teaching facilities.

* Center of Marine Archaeology, a 20,000-square-foot facility for researchers involved in deep-water exploration, diving technology and instrumentation, underwater robotics and shipwreck salvage, among other activities.

* Training Center, a 10,200-square-foot multipurpose area for conferences and meetings among scientists employed at the center and visitors, including students at area schools and colleges.

* Exhibition Area, a multilevel space being designed by Associates & Ferren of New York to give visitors a feel for the research under way at the center.

A divers' training tank has been suggested as a focal point for one end. Designers also have recommended that a water feature, possibly an ice skating rink, be created on the wharf just south of the building and the inlet between Piers 4 and 5 become the new home for the city's Maritime Museum, including the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Taney, submarine Torsk, and lightship Chesapeake.

The center also will have parking spaces for more than 500 cars one level beneath the building and room on the west side of the pier for 250,000 square feet of expanded laboratory space.

Columbus Center is expected to employ more than 500 people with an annual payroll of more than $20 million and generate $2.6 million a year in state and local taxes.

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