Something fishy at the harbor; The nautical motif is in danger of being run aground by overuse.; ARCHITECTURE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I must down to the sea again,

to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship

and a star to steer her by.

-- "Sea Fever" by John Masefield

When architect Jon Pickard set out to design an office and retail center for Baltimore's Inner Harbor, he drew inspiration from the nautical vessels all around. He carved away the top of his Pier 4 tower so its silhouette would evoke the tall ships that once plied the Chesapeake Bay. "We wanted to add to the rich visual imagery that is Baltimore," he explained.

Across the harbor, where a Ritz Carlton hotel is planned for the base of Federal Hill, the noted architect Michael Graves also seems to have boats on the brain. One preliminary sketch presented to Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel this summer showed a building divided into several wings, each sculpted to look like the hull of a ship headed out to sea.

While designing a retail and office complex for Inner Harbor East, architect Peter Fillat also played with nautical imagery. Above the entrance to a Fresh Fields grocery store will be a large canopy shaped like a wave.

These designers may think they're breaking new ground, but they're really just the latest in a long line of architects and developers who have caught sea fever, Maryland-style.

As tourists stroll around the harbor area this fall, they're already exposed to half a dozen buildings with nautical references. Some were quite clever when they appeared. But an idea that seems fresh at first can become tiresome with overuse.

In a city that now abounds with nautical images, each addition, however enthusiastic its designer, verges on overkill. All of a sudden, the area around Baltimore's Inner Harbor is perilously close to becoming a motley architectural armada.

You want nautical references? Baltimore has a boatload of them:

S.S. Captain James -- This 15-year-old seafood restaurant at Aliceanna and Boston streets is shaped like an ocean liner. It was designed and built by five Greek brothers headed by Nick Tserkis, who wanted to create a reminder of the Greek ship that brought him to America in 1966. Actually, it's shaped like half an ocean liner. It ends abruptly about midships, as if it had been sliced in two by an iceberg and only the bow found its way ashore.

The Pride of Baltimore Memorial -- Located on Rash Field, the memorial is made of a ship's mast and rigging. The hull of the vessel is not visible, as if it were just below the surface.

Sylvan Learning Systems -- The roof of Sylvan's headquarters at 1000 Lancaster Street supports two large sculptural objects that hide mechanical equipment and look like upturned canoes.

100 E. Pratt Street -- A subtler nautical reference can be found atop the 28-story office building, which looks as if it's wearing a hairnet. Some may insist it was created to commemorate Baltimore's status as "the Hairdo Capital of the World," as filmmaker John Waters once dubbed It. But the architect, Craig Hartman of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, says he designed the delicate rooftop tracery to echo the masts and rigging of ships in the harbor below.

More and more examples

There are many more examples, from the signal-flag graphics and blue neon wave on the side of the National Aquarium, to the open decks and railings on Harborplace and the Inner Harbor Center office building, to the canvas concert tent on Pier 6, to the rooftop lantern that transforms the residential tower at 100 HarborView Drive into a giant lighthouse at night. The multilevel interior of the Atlantic restaurant in Canton is reminiscent of the decks of a ship. Put all the pieces together and you'd have the makings of one complete maritime vessel.

This trend is not limited to Baltimore's waterfront. Local architect Frank Gant launched his career by designing an Annapolis Federal Savings and Loan Association branch in the shape of a sailboat. Twenty years later, it's still floating in the middle of the Parole Plaza Shopping Center, now bearing the Crestar flag.

For more than 20 years, a Frostburg congregation has been building a church in the shape of Noah's Ark. And then there's the Sailwinds Visitor Center in Cambridge that also is meant to evoke a sailboat. State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer is so enamored of the design, by Marks, Thomas & Associates, that when state transportation officials ran out of money to include three Teflon-coated sails as part of the roof, he ordered earlier this year that they find additional funds. The sail-like roof will be in place by November.

One of the most outrageous designs was a never-realized plan for Columbus Center, the $160 million marine research center on Piers 5 and 6. Created by British architect Richard Rogers, it looked like a series of waves crashing over the piers, with exhibits and research space tucked underneath. Former Columbus Center Development Inc. director Stanley Heuisler called it "the wave of the future."

But the development team grew worried that Rogers' design would cost too much, and hired another architect, Eberhard Zeidler. He came up with the nautical imagery that's there now: a white canopy that looks like a giant sea serpent. Rogers, meanwhile, took his design to the Far East and tried to build a variation of it there.

It's tempting to think of these architects as frustrated mariners, embracing their inner sailors. But there's more to it than that. Every developer, after all, is in a very real sense the captain of the ship, whether it's built for work or pleasure. They chart the course.

David Cordish, the developer who wants to build Pickard's tall ship design for Pier 4, argues that there's plenty of opportunity for architects to be creative, since there is no strong order to the buildings on the Inner Harbor's piers. By proposing a design with a nautical theme, he says, he and Pickard are creating a building that reflects its surroundings.

"I think what we've designed is very appropriate," Cordish said. "The sails and the geometrical shape play perfectly with the shape of the aquarium."

Graves, architect of the Ritz Carlton, said he wants to strike a balance between creating a signature building and one that coexists comfortably with others along the water's edge. No stranger to marine iconography, he has designed fanciful hotels at Walt Disney World called "The Swan" and "The Dolphin" and this week will receive a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in a White House ceremony, for his body of work.

For Baltimore's Inner Harbor, he says, the hotel is a "service building" that doesn't need to upstage the area's tourist attractions. At the same time, he said, he is striving to create a building that will make everyone want to go inside -- and that could take on a memorably Gravesian shape.

"I want to make a building that the curious will come to see -- whether they simply have a drink in the lobby or attend a reception in the ballroom," he said during a recent visit to Baltimore. "I want it to be a participant in the city at large. I want it to reinforce the character of what's here. I want to design a building that will prompt people to say, 'I can't imagine this site without it.' "

Enough already

In many ways, the changing architectural scene is reminiscent of the current state of network TV. NBC airs a hit show about twentysomethings coming of age in the big city, and before long, every network is trotting out variations on the theme. "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" gets big ratings on ABC, so others scramble to find the next sure-fire game show.

In the Inner Harbor, many of the initial examples of nautical imagery were appealing because they contributed to the festive spirit around the water's edge. The aquarium's signal flags and neon wave, for example, provided witty commentaries on the harbor's popularity, while lightening up a massive concrete structure.

But now, because of the cumulative effect of so many nautical images, it's harder for architects and developers to come up with designs that don't seem derivative or contrived. Generally, the most palatable designs seem to be ones in which the maritime references are understated. The rest threaten to be one-liners, and it doesn't take long for the jokes to wear thin.

How much is too much? That's largely up to today's captains of architecture. Some of the early projects showed daring and imagination. But considering the nautical fare already in place, the most daring action a designer could take today would be to chart a completely different course.

Pub Date: 09/26/99

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