Student housing at Institute suits both town and gown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the Maryland Institute College of Art set out to build its first student housing complex in historic Bolton Hill, administrators wanted to provide all the creature comforts residents have come to expect from on-campus housing: kitchens, private bathrooms, a choice of floor plans.

But recognizing the special needs and discriminating tastes of the prospective tenants -- all fine arts majors -- college officials asked their architects to provide even more: a place with a character all its own.

"It's not down by the harbor or out in Towson," said college president Fred Lazarus IV. "It's an urban project designed especially for student artists. It had to have as unique a personality as the Fox building or the [Mount Royal] Station building or any other building where our students will be, because we want them to have a sense of ownership."

The result is the Commons, a $12 million, 350-bed complex that opened this fall at McMechen and Brevard streets, just north of the college's main campus. Its completion makes the Maryland Institute a residential campus for the first time in its 166-year history. In many ways, it is one of the college's most impressive buildings -- a triumph of urban design, and a fresh take on a difficult type of housing.

What makes it so successful is that the architects from Schamu, Machowski, Doo & Associates had to navigate a veritable mine field of conflicting interests -- from students, administrators, the neighborhood and the city -- but came through with a building capable of pleasing them all.

The Commons is idiosyncratic enough to appeal to the avant-garde artists Mr. Lazarus wanted to win over, yet well-mannered enough to suit their parents, too. Besides being tailored to its users, it is closely woven into the urban fabric. All of which makes it a breakthrough project for SMDA, a 10-year-old design firm that had not previously worked on a building of this size.

By its nature, student housing is a transitional place, a halfway house for young people living away from their parents, often for ++ the first time. They want a chance to be on their own and celebrate their newfound freedom. But they can also benefit by having someone else take care of the electric bill.

The designers, led by SMDA partner Peter Doo, took note of those conflicting desires and played it both ways with the architecture as well. They provided enough of a framework to guide residents through the daily rigors of student life, yet enough flexibility to allow them to assert their independence. Their building is virtually an essay about growing up and making choices.

As constructed by Roy Kirby & Sons, the Commons is comprised of four buildings in a courtyard arrangement, enclosing a landscaped quadrangle. On the north, east and west sides are four-story structures containing student apartments. On the south side, marking the main entrance, is a two-story "gatehouse." To keep the Commons inner-oriented, the architects configured the residences so they all face the courtyard, with stair towers leading to upper-level corridors that overlook it.

Inside the buildings are 99 apartments, each housing three or four students. Besides a living area, kitchen, and private bathroom, theapartments have artist-oriented amenities such as Homosote-covered walls where students can hang art. Scattered throughout are 17 studios so students can work on projects close to their living quarters. The gatehouse contains a security desk, mail room and laundry room on the lower level, and an art gallery and meeting room above. Like the quadrangle, of which it is an extension, the gatehouse is a gathering spot that helps foster a sense of community among the residents.

Walls facing the community are clad in a taut brick skin and punctured with small windows. Stair towers at various intervals break up the expanses of brick and echo projections on the town houses to the west.

Inside the courtyard, the students' domain, the architecture is more lively. There, SMDA peeled away much of the brick veneer to reveal more of the buildings' masonry wall construction. Along walkways leading to the student rooms and inside stair towers, the surface is a ground-faced concrete block in a light shade of gray. Adorning the concrete block columns is a series of abstracted brick pilasters, vertical elements that line the courtyard like sentries. Atop these pilasters are lights that shine at night on the corrugated metal undersides of the overhanging roofs, flooding the courtyard with light.

Split personality

The architects' decision to play it both ways on several levels -- walking the high wire between students and administrators, town and gown -- has given the Commons something of a split personality: It is rigidly conformist in some ways and free spirited in others.

The most unconventional gestures involve the surface details and materials -- including exposed steel beams and concrete block. According to Mr. Doo, these industrial materials can be seen as an allusion to the loft spaces in old warehouses where artists often work. Like the pierced ears and dyed hair that some students have, they can also be taken as signs that the architects wanted the Commons to stand out from its more staid neighbors.

Like dyed hair and pierced ears, too, some of these touches may seem less "cutting-edge" for Baltimore in a few years than they do today. The most problematic areas are those with a high degree of exposed concrete block, which turns a depressing gray in the rain and is overly reminiscent of 1950s-era elementary schools. Also bothersome is the shade of blue chosen for the roof and trim, a color without precedent in the Victorian neighborhood.

At the same time, the Commons has some exquisite details, such as the creative use of steel beams as window lintels. The diagonal metal braces for the overhanging roofs also represent an innovative design solution.

If some architectural decisions are debatable, there is nothing questionable about the urban design moves, which have had a dramatically positive impact on the neighborhood. The decision to align the buildings with Bolton Hill's street grid and echo the massing and scale of surrounding town houses resulted in an attractive communal space that will serve the college well for years to come.

A second gateway provides an attractive terminus to Wilson Street. Attractive landscaping by Catherine Mahan & Associates softens the view from several directions. Not least of all, the college's basic decision to concentrate several hundred students in one place has added new energy to the neighborhood.

What's particularly intriguing about this architectural balancing act is that it mirrors the struggle of many young artists. They must decide where their work will fit in the spectrum between abstract art and representational art. They must decide how much to conform and how much to stand out.

The architects of the Commons had to grapple with these same issues, in deciding whether to mimic the neighborhood's Victorian town houses or depart from them. If any thing, they erred on the side of conservatism -- a quintessentially Baltimorean trait.

What stands out most about this project, though, is the way the architects elevated it by taking the risks they did. In a world where too many people take the easy way out, it's reassuring to see architects who aren't afraid to make a statement when one is called for -- and a client who's not afraid to back them up.

Open house

What: The Maryland Institute College of Art will hold an open house at the Commons, McMechen and Brevard streets. After a formal dedication ceremony, visitors will be able to tour student apartments and view an art exhibit in the new Gatehouse Gallery.

When: Saturday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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