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Mount Royal arts center designs swing from traditional to an 'urban chandelier'


Baltimore's new performing arts center may turn out to be an "urban chandelier," featuring crystalline glass shapes set against white marble and metal, and changing light shows touting the latest production.

Or it may look like a pair of elongated metallic space ships, sewn together at the roof and bulging with the "Arts of the 21st Century."

How about a high-tech mini-version of New York's Times Square, featuring oversized marquees and the country's first all-glass theaters? Or a more traditional building clad in Mount Vernon-compatible stone and brick, with a block-long lobby and theaters reminiscent of the best on Broadway?

Those were the options presented yesterday to a six-member jury assigned to choose an architect for the $60 million performing arts center proposed for the former Baltimore Life Insurance Co. property, a 5.8-acre parcel at 901 N. Howard St. in the Mount Royal Cultural District.

The presentations marked the end of a five-week design competition launched on behalf of Friends of the Performing Arts, a non-profit group led by Hope Quackenbush.

Selected from a list of 29 teams, the finalists were asked to design a two-hall complex, with a 2,800-seat large hall for Broadway-style and operatic productions; a 650-seat small hall for medium-sized music groups; a 200-seat multi-purpose room and related spaces.

After four 80-minute presentations, the jury members adjourned to pick a winner. A decision is expected by Friday. The competitors are:

* Antoine Predock, Architect, of Albuquerque, N.M., with Ayers Saint Gross Inc. of Baltimore. They proposed a building with a strong image that Mr. Predock dubbed "urban chandelier."

He says he wants to create a "sculpture of glass" and a "celebratory vehicle for light" that could be viewed from across the city. He adds that he conceives of the theaters as "fossils" that would appear to be embedded in glass, and that exterior walls could double as screens for projected images of shows to come, such as the mask from "Phantom of the Opera."

* Arata Isozaki & Associates of Tokyo with Design Collective of Baltimore and landscape architect Martha Schwartz of Boston. They proposed side-by-side performing halls, separated by a common lobby. The buildings would be enclosed in curvaceous shapes of etched stainless steel or some other metallic surface. Mr. Isozaki says the shape is a departure for him, but he believes strongly that Baltimore needs a "performing arts center for the 21st century" and that will require "a completely different image."

* Rafael Vinoly Architects of New York. They broke the performing arts center into three separate cubes, the two performing halls and an administrative block, grouped around a central plaza. The cubes were to be clad in glass and lighted brightly at night to add life to the area. Mr. Vinoly's plan also tried to make the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall a part of the new performing arts complex, by designing the central plaza so it would be framed by the symphony hall.

* Lett/Smith Architects of Toronto. The architects proposed the most conventional complex, a compact pair of theaters that picked up architectural vocabulary of neo-classical brick and stone buildings in the Mount Vernon historic district. The architects used only the southern half of the site for the building and proposed that the north end of the lot become a park connecting the new center with the Meyerhoff and the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Each team will receive $10,000 for participating in the competition; the winner will get a chance to negotiate a design contract if the project moves ahead.

The Abell Foundation has agreed to provide $45,000 for preliminary design work. The Friends of the Performing Arts group is also seeking $250,000 from the General Assembly this spring so the selected architect can continue design work.

The jury includes Mrs. Quackenbush, architects Mario Schack and Colden Florance; Ronald Kreitner, director of the Maryland Office of Planning; Fred Lazarus IV, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art; and Reginald Griffith, executive director of the Capital Planning Commission.

The planning group says a construction timetable will depend on the success of its fund-raising effort.

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