A rich tapestry rises on the Inner Harbor; The new six-story Lutheran Center owes much of its blended design to the work that goes on inside.


Nothing symbolizes the humanitarian efforts of Baltimore's newest nonprofit organization, Lutheran World Relief, more vividly than the hundreds of thousands of quilts it delivers each year to communities in need around the world.

Made by members of 18,000 Lutheran congregations, often at old-fashioned quilting bees, the bedspreads provide warmth for victims of wars or natural disasters in areas such as Kosovo, East Timor and earthquake-stricken Turkey. Beyond that, their handcrafted quality sends a message to recipients that someone, somewhere, cares about them.

Quilts are a recurring motif at the Lutheran Center, a six-story office building at 700 Light St. that will be dedicated at 4 p.m. next Sunday as the new world headquarters for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services.

At the building's main entrance is the Good Samaritan Quilt Plaza, a promenade paved in a tri-color quilting pattern. On the first level is a high-ceilinged "quilting room," where church groups can make quilts for shipment overseas.

But perhaps the strongest expression of the quilting theme is the design of the building itself. The exterior is made up of a series of interlocking forms and materials that are carefully woven into a three-dimensional tapestry that is, in many ways, the architectural equivalent of a quilt.

Each side of the building was designed to be different, in response to the scale and materials of the area it faces. The result is a powerful essay in contextual modernism -- a taut work of architecture that not only suits its occupants but helps express what they do.

As one of the last buildings to be constructed on the "front row" of the Inner Harbor, it also manages to pull off one of the most difficult feats in urban design: to create a building that at once fits in with its surroundings and stands out as an object unto itself.

Fitting in

The 47,000-square-foot, $6.7 million Lutheran Center houses five organizations in all. Besides Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, which moved from New York City last month, there are offices for the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Foundation; and the Eastern Region Office of Tressler Lutheran Services.

The center rises on a compact urban site owned by nearby Christ Lutheran Church, immediately south of the Christ Church Harbor Apartments. It's at a key crossroads where the modern Inner Harbor West redevelopment area meets the tightly knit south Baltimore historic district.

Designing a building that's compatible with the many scales and materials in this transitional area, from the tiny rowhouses of Federal Hill to large attractions such as the Maryland Science Center, is a classic exercise that would challenge any architect.

The design team consisted of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates of New York -- an internationally prominent firm that has worked for such clients as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Harvard University and Walt Disney Co. -- and Marks, Thomas and Associates of Baltimore.

This is the first building in Maryland for Gwathmey Siegel, which is internationally known for its ability to fit buildings into difficult urban contexts while working in a modernist vein. Charles Gwathmey and Robert Siegel were the design principals for Gwathmey Siegel, with Thomas Levering as the associate-in-charge and Greg Epstein as project architect. Paul Marks was the principal-in-charge for Marks, Thomas, with Mark Heckman as project manager and George Shannon as project architect. The general contractor was Bovis Inc.

Although the building stands on its own, the architects conceived of it as a new southern end for the Harbor Apartments, a long, modern building by Donald Hisaka that always presented a blank face to south Baltimore.

To help knit the building into its setting, they designed each exposed side so that it reflects the area it faces. The Inner Harbor side is primarily metal, glass and sand-colored brick, like many of the large-scale office buildings downtown. The west side, facing the brick church, has a red brick skin. The south side, facing Federal Hill, has a combination of red brick, sand-colored brick, metal and glass. Windows vary in size as well, from the strip windows on the harbor side to the smaller windows facing the church.

Gwathmey said the design team did not consciously try to evoke a quilt in the exterior design, but he acknowledged that the interlocking forms might be read that way. "I think our work tends to do that anyway," he said. "It's collage-like."

Gwathmey said this is one of the smallest office buildings his firm has ever worked on, but in many ways, it is one of the richest because of the efforts to adjust each facade to the area it faces. "I think it's the first time where it's a semi-public building on a critical site that has a multiplicity of scales and urban conditions, and it engages all of them, from the plaza to the roof terrace. It's truly a three-dimensional building. ... You can read it two ways -- as part of a whole or as an object unto itself."

Keeping it in context

Varying the facades is just one way the architects made the building contextual and iconic.

They also made the building fit in by the way they designed the tower element, the base and the entrance plaza. The Light Street side was scaled to be approached from an automobile, for example, while the sides facing south Baltimore and the church are more pedestrian-oriented. Responding to requests from the community, the architects set the building back as far as possible from nearby rowhouses along Hughes Street and separated it from them with the "quilt plaza."

The architects made the building an object, meanwhile, by giving the office block a shape that appears to terminate the Harbor Apartment block. Cantilevering space on the harbor side proved to be a clever way to capture views up and down Light Street. Besides being an attractive vantage point from which to view the city, the round rooftop conference room is a signature feature that gives the building a distinctive presence in the skyline.

Inside, the building contains a number of attractive spaces and touches tailored to its occupants. The first level has a small but vibrant retail operation called the Global Marketplace, featuring crafts made by artisans around the world. Upper-level offices are bright and airy, with picture-postcard views in all directions.

On each floor, part of the ceiling was left uncovered and mechanical systems were exposed, as they often are in restored loft buildings, to provide more height, ambient light and visual interest. Attractive window seats were built into each stairwell to encourage interaction among employees. The building also has been designed in keeping with the latest concepts of "green architecture," including metal screens that shade south- and east-facing windows and use of environmentally safe materials.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about this building is the way its architecture so closely matches the tenor of the nonprofit organizations inside. It isn't ostentatious in materials, but it's extraordinarily rich in thought. It helps define the Federal Hill neighborhood while improving the appearance of a key corner of the Inner Harbor.

At a time when more and more organizations want to make their home on Baltimore's waterfront, this inspired exercise in contextual modernism shows how to do it right.

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