Architects have gone back to the drawing board to design ambitious new projects THE YEAR 1993 IN REVIEW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Venetian-style canal in the middle of Market Place. A performing arts center in the Mount Royal cultural district. An "avenue of the arts" along the Howard Street corridor.

Had anyone suggested two years ago that these ideas were being entertained by the fiscally conservative Schmoke administration, much less endorsed, he or she might have been laughed out of the room.

But a funny thing happened on the way out of the recession. And it signifies a new attitude about design that is taking hold all over Maryland.

After three years of limited budgets and lowered sights, 1993 was the year many of the region's architects and urban designers began to dream again -- if only on paper.

Maryland has certainly not shaken its economic doldrums entirely; plenty of talented designers remain out of work. But for many, 1993 was a turning-point year when they finally could lighten up, loosen up and think more expansively about the future.

Many of the better local buildings that opened during the past year, such as the Peabody Inn by Murphy & Dittenhafer, or the Barrister Court Apartments by Cho, Wilks & Benn, were relatively low-budget rehabilitation projects that demonstrated local designers could pinch pennies and still come up with splendid additions to the cityscape.

The beacon-topped condominium tower at 100 Harborview Drive brought new life to South Baltimore, while showcasing the talents of Baltimore native Richard Burns and his firm, Design Collective. Perhaps the most important new building in the country was James Ingo Freed's emotional blockbuster, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The focus on paper architecture came about largely by default. Forced by a sluggish economy to rechannel their creativity, young architects turned to the realm of ideas to express their aspirations of city-making, since little was actually getting built. Public officials, unable to point to the completion of many new buildings in the private sector, also turned their attention to the paper world of renderings and blueprints to drum up support for future projects.

Economic downturns have always been good times for long-range planning. By year's end, the ideas were coming fast and furious, with designers exploring everything from an overhaul of the Inner Harbor shoreline to a new museum devoted to vaudeville. Some of the wackier ideas may be dismissed as the random ruminations of architects pent up in their drafting studios for too long. But for the most part, it was a sign that local designers were regaining their sense of optimism.

The best example of this new optimism is Baltimore's $12.5 million plan to turn a 2 1/2 -block stretch of Market Place into a faux canal, complete with old-time barges and fishing schooners doubling as vendors' kiosks and outdoor cafes.

The goal was to draw people from the Inner Harbor up to the Brokerage complex, future site of a $20 million children's center. In search of a bold solution, the Baltimore Development Corp. and its on-call planners, Anshen + Allen, hired New York-based designer and eco-sculptor James Wines of SITE Inc. He conceived the idea for the canal -- actually three separate, non-navigable pools -- and showed how to make it work. Some have criticized the design as another example of piecemeal planning around the Inner Harbor -- a serious problem in the past. But it's also the kind of serendipitous thinking that Baltimore hasn't seen for some time.

The Market Place canal is just one of many ideas on the drawing boards for Baltimore. A mayoral task force formed to revive the Howard Street corridor wants to save three historic theaters -- the Hippodrome, the Mayfair and the Town. Five architects have been chosen to generate new ideas for Rash Field. Several more are beginning studies for a 2,700-seat performing-arts center in the Mount Royal cultural center.

So far, the proposed theater has sparked the biggest controversy -- a debate over whether it should be on Howard Street or the waterfront. Wherever it ends up, an important job for planners will be to figure out what to do with the Morris Mechanic Theatre, so it doesn't become a black hole in the middle of Charles Center.

One of the year's highlights came in July, when the All-Star Game came to Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore's newfangled, old-fashioned ballpark has done more to get people interested in architecture than any other local building in a generation. The accompanying effort by local building owners to light up the Baltimore skyline for the All-Star Game was a smashing success.

One of the biggest disappointments of 1993 is that state officials weren't able to proceed with construction of a companion football stadium in Camden Yards because Baltimore didn't get an NFL expansion team. State officials can and should still proceed with plans to create a waterfront greenway that was designed to link the second stadium with the Inner Harbor.

A bright spot is that Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is working with an exceptionally talented sports design firm, Ellerbe Becket of Kansas City, to create the football stadium he now wants to build in Laurel. And historic Camden Station, whose exterior has already been artfully restored by Cho, Wilks & Benn, will finally get a permanent tenant when the Babe Ruth Museum moves in.

The baseball center is one of a half dozen museums under construction or in the planning stages for the area, already a mecca of mini-museums. Construction is nearly finished on the New Wing for Modern Art at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and work began this fall on the American Visionary Arts Museum near Federal Hill.

By this time next year, construction also could be under way on the children's museum at the Brokerage, a Civil War and railroading museum inside President Street train station, a bicycling museum on Key Highway, a sports museum inside the Pier 4 Power Plant, an exhibition center for the City Life Museums on Museum Row and a Museum of Dentistry on the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus.

In Annapolis, preservationists lost a leader this year with the death from cancer of Anne St. Claire Wright. Their biggest challenge is finding a way to shoehorn a huge new Anne Arundel County Courthouse onto a site near historic Church Circle in Annapolis. Also, St. John's College acquired the former state Hall of Records by Lawrence Hall Fowler and hired alumnus Travis Price to turn it into a library.

The University of Maryland selected five theater specialists to participate in a design competition for an $80 million performing arts center at College Park; results are due in February. Art lovers in Frederick opened the first phase of the Delaplaine Center for the Visual Arts. A nonprofit group in Baltimore County decided to save the art deco Pikes Theater as part of a new performing arts center for Pikesville. Baltimore County also created a much-needed design review panel to help guide planning for new buildings in Towson and other growth areas.

Finally, while there seems to be a backlash against political correctness in other segments of the arts, the PC movement gained support within the Baltimore design community. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) this fall presented design awards for: an inn for elderly tourists; apartments for the working poor; a hospital wing for pregnant women; and the intentionally provocative Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. One disgruntled nonwinner in this year's program, an architect who had the misfortune of designing a private residence for rich people, emerged from the ceremony vowing to submit the same project next fall but relabel it "Homeless Shelter for Sick Children from Appalachia." For that architect, and anyone else who may have come up short during 1993, one can only say: Better luck next year. It promises to be an exciting one.

THE YEAR IN ARCHITECTURE

* The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a metaphorical odyssey to history's darkest hour, by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.

* 100 Harborview Drive, the new grande dame of South Baltimore, by Design Collective, Vlastimil Koubek, and Sasaki Associates.

* Peabody Inn, the sensitive restoration of the last vacant town houses on Mount Vernon Square, by Murphy & Dittenhafer.

* International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers headquarters, a gleaming metal robo-building, by AI/Boggs.

* The All-Star Game at Camden Yards and Light-Up Night downtown -- putting Baltimore in the best possible light.

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