There's a developer in town who insists that the best way to judge the design of a tall building is by the extent to which a giant gorilla would want to climb to the top.
Such a romantic notion may work for King Kong and Fay Wray, but will it sell condominiums in Baltimore?
That's the question of the hour for the designers and developers of 100 HarborView Drive, the 27-story, $80 million tower that opened this fall just south of Federal Hill.
After nearly a decade of planning and construction, it is finally possible to see how well developers Richard Swirnow and Parkway Holdings Ltd. lived up to their promise of creating a world-class, resort- like community on Baltimore's waterfront.
To be sure, the first residents will render their own verdicts when they move in starting later this month. But from the standpoint of design and construction, this beacon-topped tower is already an unqualified success.
From a distance, it provides solid evidence that a former ship repair yard can be transformed into a new waterfront neighborhood. Close up, it stands as an enduring and durable work of architecture.
Put it all together and this may just be the civic talisman that will finally break the high-rise condo jinx and lure affluent buyers back to the city.
This first tower presented perhaps the most difficult challenge of the six 15- to 20-story towers planned for the 42-acre HarborView site, which will eventually contain up to 1,590 residences.
It had to fit in as part of a larger community, but it also had to stand alone until the other buildings take shape. It had to set a new tone for the area, yet be familiar enough that it could coax conservative buyers out of their present homes.
The design team was headed by Design Collective of Baltimore, with Richard Burns as principal in charge. Other architects included Vlastimil Koubek, Sasaki Associates and Swanke Hayden Connell. M. Paul Friedberg and Partners of New York was the landscape architect.
According to Mr. Burns, the design team chose to make the first tower a "foreground building" that would stand out from the others by virtue of its shape, color and prominent waterfront setting. They also took cues from the "grande dame" apartment houses built in New York during the 1920s and 1930s, such as Graham Court and the Beresford.
"In our research of Baltimore's architecture and urbanization history, we could not find a precedent for a densely juxtaposed series of high-rise residential structures," Mr. Burns explained. "It was our hope that by learning how the New York 'classics' were urbanized and humanized, we could then reinterpret these lessons" for Baltimore.
In many ways, 100 HarborView Drive is to high-rise residential buildings what Oriole Park at Camden Yards is to ballparks -- a new building with a traditional feel and enough nooks and crannies to keep it interesting. Like Camden Yards, too, it makes a positive first impression -- solid, warm, welcoming.
Rising on the easternmost end of a dry dock that juts into the harbor, the 248-unit tower is perpendicular to Key Highway and surrounded on three sides by water. Its main entrance is on the south side, through a porte-cochere created by three large arches.
Three in one
Containing condominiums originally priced from $129,000 to $1.7 million, and 1,000 underground parking spaces, the tower was conceived as three buildings in one. The least expensive "marina" residences are on floors two to 13. The more expensive "skyline" homes occupy floors 14 to 23, and the luxurious penthouses are on floors 24 to 27. The exterior expresses those divisions with a bottom, middle and top articulated by "major" and "minor" cornices, setbacks, urns and other details that help break down the tower's apparent scale.
Materials include sandblasted precast concrete made to look like granite; a light precast concrete made to look like limestone, and a peach-color brick that goes well with the blue-green tint of the windows. If the brick seems unusually light, it's because the architects wanted the building to stand out from future high-rises, whose brick will be more earth-toned.
The building actually consists of an east tower and a west tower, each with its own elevator banks. The arrangement results in fewer residences per elevator lobby and more privacy for occupants. The division is expressed on the north and south sides by a vertical line of bay windows above the center arch in the porte cochere. Atop the easternmost tower is the building's three-story, eight-sided beacon, which turns the building into a lighthouse when it's lighted from within at night.
At wharf level, the building's three dimensionality is readily apparent. The rusticated base, in particular, gives it a sense of permanence and solidity,
Success on the south side
Even though the north and south sides are similar in design, the south side, where the main entrance is, seems more successful. That's because it is bathed in sunlight during the day, and the play of light and shadows accentuates the building's sculptural qualities. The north side, visible from Harborplace, doesn't receive direct sunlight in the same way, and seems flatter as a result. Because of the distinctive top and setbacks, though, it still cuts a memorable silhouette.
"I don't think that we made any conscious effort to be stylistic, in the sense that it is postmodern or classical," Mr. Burns said. "We just wanted it to look like a place where people live.
"We tried to give it enough wrinkles and nuances that residents can look up and say, 'That's my bay window' or 'That's my balcony.' We didn't want this to be another Highfield House, where everybody has the same window. We hope it celebrates the diversity of the people who move in."
In designing the residences themselves, the architects worked hard not to repeat the mistakes made by other local projects that were not well received, such as lack of balconies and waterfront views.
Close to 70 percent of the exterior wall space is glass, and every residence has at least one balcony. Designers placed a strong emphasis on flexible floor plans with little wasted space. They also made extensive use of diagonal walls to maximize harbor views.
Given the range of prices, however, certain residences are clearly better than others. Asymmetrical spaces behind some of the curved walls seem more like fragments of rooms than whole spaces. The diagonal walls take a bit of getting used to. But by providing 42 different layouts, the developers have given prospective residents plenty of options. And the penthouses, including those with two-story spaces and wraparound views of the harbor, are nothing short of spectacular.
The public spaces are a curiously mixed bag.
With wave-shaped pennants, colorful tiles and sweeping harbor
views on three sides, the indoor pool area is the building's liveliest public space. At dusk, it fills with a golden glow.
Less impressive are the three public rooms off the main entrance. The developers sought a look of quiet elegance but ended up with spaces that have the personality of a dentist's waiting room. (Swanke Hayden Connell, interior designer for Trump Tower in New York, prepared the initial plans, but they were never fully executed. What visitors see is primarily the work of designers from Bloomingdale's working in collaboration with Mr. Swirnow's wife, Rae).
The main sitting area, for example, has light-colored walls, an Oriental-style rug and upholstered furniture. It's the kind of safe, generic decor that might suffice in a downtown hotel, but the residents here deserve better. Given the caliber of the rest of the building, these first-impression spaces should be drop-dead gorgeous, not merely ho-hum.
Another gaffe on the first level is the view from the westernmost meeting room. One window opens to a picture-postcard view of the downtown skyline. But distractingly visible in the foreground are three unsightly high-voltage transformer boxes, sitting on the pier. A cobalt-blue space frame has been erected above the transformers to cap off the area that houses them, but it blocks the skyline even more. There must be a better solution.
About that beacon
To Mr. Swirnow, the rooftop beacon is the ultimate symbol of his effort to draw people back to the city. It also conceals rooftop mechanical equipment. Pundits say it looks like a spaceship or a giant bug zapper.
Whatever one reads into the shape, it's hard to deny that the beacon does much to give the building a commanding presence. Poised above the eastern end, it lifts the building up and out to the harbor, like the torch on the Statue of Liberty. When lighted at night, it can be seen from all directions. Take it away, and the building wouldn't be nearly as striking.
Frankly, the light itself is too static for the build-up it gets with the flying buttresses and white halo. It might have more fans if it changed colors, like a giant mood ring or swirling lava lamp, or spewed fireworks when the Orioles win. If nothing else, it could take the place of the MN signs downtown and give the weather forecast.
Still, the beacon was a big idea, well executed. How many of those have there been lately? The stadium. The aquarium. Harborplace. The message is: There's always room for more.
Part of the city
But the best part of the building isn't what happens on the top. It's what happens on the ground.
For all the breast-beating and heroics of 100 HarborView Drive, it stands as part of the city, not apart from it. No one is made to feel excluded. There are no gates to block access to the waterfront.
This is no small feat. It would have been easy to turn HarborView into another fortress-like enclave, like Harbor Court, or a gated community, such as the Village of Cross Keys. But the site planners were determined to make the grounds of HarborView public, not a private domain.
Residents and their guests will enter the building either below grade through the garage or above grade in the raised entrance, leaving the promenade accessible to the general public. Transitions between public, semi-public and private zones are handled so subtly and artfully that many people won't notice them.
This is a tribute to the site-planning skills of Sasaki Associates and M. Paul Friedberg and Partners. It is also a tribute to former city planning director Larry Reich, who insisted the city's shoreline be open to the public even when it is privately owned. The result is that HarborView has become an important part of the city's seven-mile waterfront promenade system -- and a valuable amenity for south Baltimore.
Now that the developers have the flagship tower they needed to launch their waterfront community, another important step will be to make sure future buildings reinforce the sense of place they have begun to create. Mr. Burns talks of structures defining "urban rooms" that have a distinct feel and character.
But this fall, the goal is simply to fill that first tower, the new "grande dame" of South Baltimore. Masterful design and construction work have brought them a long way. It's up to the buyers to do the rest. If HarborView doesn't lure affluent homeowners back to the city the way Mr. Swirnow hopes, it's hard to imagine what will.