New front door for Baltimore Tomorrow's hello: Proposed Welcome Center nods to city's flavor and future.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If one building could sum up Baltimore through its architecture, what would it look like?

Would it have a brick exterior? Marble steps? Oriel windows? Would it be part of a row, or freestanding? Modern or traditional?

It might be tempting for an architect to reach deep into the grab bag of history and come up with some nostalgic image that says Bawlamer -- Formstone-covered rowhouses, perhaps, or the quirky crenelations of the Bromo Seltzer Tower.

But that wasn't the approach taken by local designers of a proposed Inner Harbor pavilion that will represent Baltimore to millions of visitors each year, a $2.5 million "Welcome Center" due to open in early 1997.

As conceived by Design Collective of Baltimore, the two-story Welcome Center is the antithesis of the predictable exercises in postmodern pastiche that are turning so many American cities into architectural theme parks. Instead of harking back to some forgotten past, the architects responded with a glass and masonry structure that looks confidently to the future.

Yet they also managed to interject subtle design references that pay homage to the living, breathing, marble steps-scrubbing city beyond the Inner Harbor. In the process, they have given Maryland's largest city a spirited new symbol for its continuing renaissance -- "The Baltimore Pavilion."

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Designers of the 8,000-square-foot Welcome Center were specifically asked to make it look like a "Baltimore building" because its chief mission is to promote the city and region.

Funded by the city and state, it will be constructed starting this spring and operated by the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. The goal is to create a one-stop orientation center where tourists, conventioneers and business travelers can get a brief introduction to the city and pick up information about attractions, hotels, restaurants and events in Baltimore and Maryland.

Facilities open to the public will include audio-visual displays, an orientation film, changing exhibits, ticket sales, restrooms and an information counter where guides will answer questions, and back-of-the-house spaces will include staff offices. It's expected draw upward of 2 million visitors a year -- more people than annually visit the National Aquarium -- just in time for the city's bicentennial.

The design of the visitors center would be a key issue no matter where it was located, because sponsors want it to make a strong first impression on out-of-towners. But its appearance is especially critical given its prime location -- the west shore of the Inner Harbor, just south of the Light Street pavilion of Harborplace.

Design Collective got the commission because it was half of a team that won a 1994 competition to recommend improvements for 20 acres of Inner Harbor shoreline. Martha Schwartz Inc., a prominent landscape architecture firm from Cambridge, Mass., is the second half of the team and designer of the public spaces around Welcome Center.

The building itself will present two faces to the city, Janus-like.

On the east side, facing the harbor, it is quite extroverted -- a giant porch that reaches up and out to the harbor, providing a civic profile to incoming tall ships and shade to passers-by. Beneath a sloping metal roof will be a curving two-story "bay window" that lets people outside look in and lets those inside enjoy panoramic views of the harbor.

On the west side, facing Otterbein and other parts of West Baltimore, the building is much more introverted. Defining the eastern edge of Light Street is a series of brick volumes that are lined up like abstract rowhouses. These are unified by a nautically detailed canopy, marble steps and street-level windows that allow pedestrians to see through the building to the harbor. On the south side is a small theater that reads as a sculptural object within the glass pavilion. It will be clad in yellow Kasota stone, selected for its warmth and richness.

According to Richard Burns, principal in charge of the project for Design Collective and a Baltimore native, the building presents two faces to the public because it contains two different kinds of spaces -- open information and exhibit areas, and closed offices. Its dual nature also reflects an effort to create a building that responds to different site conditions -- the harbor side and the city side.

Mr. Burns said he did not want the visitor center to upstage the Science Center, aquarium or other blockbuster attractions nearby. At the same time, he wants to give it enough presence to stand out from the smaller kiosks and booths dotting the shoreline.

Questions raised

While the building was going through the design-review process, some members of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's staff questioned whether it was "Baltimore enough."

Mr. Burns said he didn't want to copy Harborplace and make the center a third green-roofed pavilion because it doesn't have the same mission. He also did not want to be too nostalgic with

imagery, he said, because he didn't want to dwell on the past. He contends there are different ways to make a "Baltimore building."

"The Inner Harbor is a relatively recent phenomenon in the city," he said. "Is the Science Center a Baltimore building? Is the aquarium a Baltimore building? Is the World Trade Center a Baltimore building? We would say this is a Baltimore building. It doesn't have to be a nostalgic view of Baltimore, because the city is still evolving. It's still progressing."

Although it is outwardly a modern building, the pavilion is made up of components that are firmly rooted in traditional Baltimore architecture.

The colonnaded porch is a successor to the porticos found on Davidge Hall, the Basilica of the Assumption, and other neoclassical works. The bay window is a proven way to frame a view -- ideal for the harbor setting. And the brick volumes along Light Street allude to Baltimore's rowhouses. Eighteen and a half feet wide and two stories tall -- a typical rowhouse proportion -- they will even be made of the same "Baltimore" brick that was used to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"I strongly believe that the best 'Baltimore buildings' are ones that respond to their context," Mr. Burns said. "You could argue that this one is very traditional on the Light Street side, with brick walls and marble steps. On the harbor side, it's not a traditional response. But it takes advantage of its waterfront setting in the way it allows views in and out of the building."

The design team tried to keep the building "as restrained as possible in terms of its quirkiness," he added. "But there is some quirkiness. And we'd like to think that's a response to the context. We tried to design a building that's honest, and will stand the test of time."

Janus-faced

Whether the Welcome Center succeeds in serving visitors will depend in large part on the nature of the exhibits, which haven't been designed yet, and the professionalism of the staff. But its shell is a fitting response to the site, program, budget and times.

It may be less blatantly sentimental than the Harborplace pavilions, which were designed to be "festive." Because its forms are relatively abstract, the Welcome Center can be read as both civic and domestic, object and backdrop, the "hero" and the "good soldier." The subtle references to traditional Baltimore architecture make it a site-specific building that couldn't be mistaken for a visitors center in Des Moines.

It's fitting, too, that Janus was the ancient Roman god of doorways and of beginnings. He is absolutely the right deity for a building that will provide a new front door to Baltimore, at the beginning of a visitor's journey.

To drive home the connection to Charm City, the designers proposed one more feature that couldn't possibly be considered too abstract or obtuse.

The area in front of Welcome Center has been designed as an open plaza that can accommodate gatherings of up to 1,000 people. On the ground plane will be a series of white marble steps -- just like the ones for which Baltimore neighborhoods are so famous, but severed from the houses to which they typically lead.

These marble steps will come in many sizes -- long, short, wide and narrow. Some will be placed in rows, to be used like benches for impromptu outdoor classes. Others will be positioned around the plaza to provide seating for those who want to eat lunch outdoors or just watch the passing activity, the way people in Baltimore sit out on their front steps. In the center of the plaza will be a large stage, again in marble.

This ode to Baltimore's white marble steps was the inspiration of Ms. Schwartz, who also proposed that land atop Rash Field be sculpted in the shape of a giant crab as a way to signify Baltimore. While funding decisions about the crab have been deferred, the step-sculpture evokes local lore in the same way without striking any raw nerves among people who contend that crabs aren't the right symbol for Baltimore.

As designed by Ms. Schwartz, this garden of marbelian delights is an accessible work of public art that pays tribute to Baltimore traditions and sets a friendly tone for this heavily traveled space. It'll mark the place as distinctly Baltimore, while keeping the area animated night and day.

There has been some question whether sufficient funds are available to complete this portion of the project by mid-1997, but leaving it out would be sheer stoop-idity. If Welcome Center is the new front door to Baltimore, this playful plaza is a three-dimensional welcome mat that will grab visitors' attention and beckon them inside. It promises to be one of the most popular perches in the city.

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