'Science on the half-shell'


When the board of the Christopher Columbus Center announced in December that it was replacing architect Richard Rogers with the Zeidler Roberts Partnership of Toronto, it gave up on the dream of bringing that visionary British architect's work to Baltimore. But it did so in order to cling to another dream, that of a world-class research facility that would help to preserve this country's lead in the emerging field of marine biotechnology.

Given current economic realities, getting the center built had to take priority over dreams of a spectacular, pace-setting design that would inevitably carry with it a higher price tag and unpredictable cost-overruns that could alienate the public funding sources essential to the project.

Now, after two months of intense work, Ed Zeidler, who placed second to Mr. Rogers in the center's international competition, has produced plans that, if not visionary in the Rogers style, are certainly intriguing enough to have won the enthusiastic backing of the center's major patrons, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the state's congressional delegation.

The design still faces refinements and revisions, but the basic concept seems to be in place. On Thursday, the center's board will present the plans to a budget committee in Annapolis, since this is the year the state is called on for $17 million, its major contribution to the project. (It previously has given $1.5 million for design work). The $161 million project already has won nearly $30 million from Congress, and is attracting attention as an economic development effort that will be important for this region and for the country as a whole. There is a compelling case for state legislators to give solid support to the center this session.

In the months to come, there will be plenty of discussion of the merits of the Zeidler design, a dramatic building some have likened to a sea creature or "science on the half shell." There will even be yearning for what Mr. Rogers might have wrought. But what is most impressive to us is that this project -- which once seemed little more than a pipe dream -- is fast moving toward reality.

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