ICON in stone and steel


For those following the Olympics, it's impossible to avoid images of Australia's most famous work of architecture, the Sydney Opera House.

Whether it's serving as a backdrop for fireworks, finish line for the triathlon or logo for NBC cameras, Jorn Utzon's 1957 masterpiece has become a powerful symbol of the 2000 Games and Sydney's emergence as a world-class city.

As Baltimore prepares a bid with Washington to play host to the 2012 Olympics, more than a few Marylanders may wonder if it, too, needs a signature building on the order of the opera house. And if so, what should it be for and where should it go?

Local architects, planners and other design experts are sharply divided on the subject. Some say Baltimore already has the National Aquarium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and that it shouldn't try to build a landmark for the sake of building a landmark. They warn that Australia's showpiece took nearly 17 years to complete and came in millions of dollars over budget, and that erecting a similar structure today could be more trouble than it's worth.

But others love the idea of a world-class building on Baltimore's skyline, and think that the best site would be Harbor Point -- the former Allied Signal chrome plant property that juts into the water between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, now cleared and ready for development.

They note that many cities are known by their landmarks -- whether it's Hagia Sophia in Istanbul or the Eiffel Tower in Paris -- and that a new architectural icon could help put Baltimore on the map. In fact, they say, early plans for the Allied property envisioned that part of it would be reserved for a signature building.

Advocates for more adventurous architecture point to "the Bilbao effect" -- the acclaim and attention that can come to a city or region when it gains a landmark as dazzling and instantly recognizable as Frank Gehry's titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

"These buildings help attract tourists and businesses and instill a sense of pride in city residents," said Richard Burns, a principal of Design Collective. Burns said he visited the Bilbao museum earlier this year and was impressed by the changes it had triggered in the region. "If we're going to compete with other cities -- not just for tourism but to bring in new businesses and improve the quality of life for those who live here -- we have to go further in terms of architecture."

Klaus Philipsen, an architect who heads ArchPlan Inc. of Baltimore, was involved in early planning for redevelopment of the Allied property when he worked with Cho Wilks and Benn Architects. He recalls that designers considered setting aside a key portion of the 27-acre parcel for open space or a public building such as a performing arts center, and that the Sydney Opera House was cited as an example of the sort of structure that might be appropriate there.

Planners later decided to build a performing arts center in and around the old Hippodrome Theater on the west side of downtown. But Philipsen said he still likes the idea of a signature building at Harbor Point.

"That would be a fantastic site to do it," he said. "It could be an opera house -- a reincarnation of the Lyric."

Baltimore doesn't get many architectural tourists because it doesn't have the same caliber of modern buildings as some other cities in the United States or Europe, Philipsen noted. "We have a wonderful architectural fabric, but no one comes to see the architectural fabric. Once in a while, you have to have a daring, signature building that stands out to make you appreciate the fabric."

Mario Schack, an architect who serves on Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, said he believes the National Aquarium in Baltimore represented an attempt by its architects to do for Baltimore's waterfront what the opera house does for Sydney. He also sees the Inner Harbor, in its totality, as a place that successfully represents Baltimore.

"Even with all the jumble around it, the Inner Harbor is still an outdoor living room for the city, and it's very symbolic of Baltimore," he said. "It's very identifiable."

What defines an icon?

To be an icon, a building needs not only the right design but also the right site, Schack said. "If there were a site such as the Allied property that has sufficient land around it, I don't see why we wouldn't be ready for something like this. It certainly brings in tax dollars and people. Why not?"

M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the use of the signature building is also important to its success.

"If there is a use that would produce a signature building, fine," he said. "But I wouldn't just produce a sculptural object without a good reason. We shouldn't force it to happen just because we think we need a work of sculpture."

Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and president of the American Visionary Art Museum, which sits across the harbor from the Allied property on Key Highway, said she would want any new monument to have a strong association with Baltimore rather than be a clone of another city's landmark. She noted that the Pier 6 concert tent can be seen as a sort of cut-rate version of the Sydney Opera House and said she wouldn't want to see any more attempts to "regurgitate" that image on Baltimore's waterfront.

"We ought to have a giant statue of Blaze Starr, standing like the Colossus of Rhodes with one foot on each side of the harbor," she said. "You could sail ships right up through her legs."

Hoffberger said she agrees that the Allied property, now controlled by Honeywell Corp., would be a good location for a dramatic architectural statement. She said she'd like to see Baltimore take a lesson from Chicago's Navy Pier and use part of the property as the setting for a giant kinetic sculpture -- perhaps a large Ferris wheel or roller coaster.

"It should be something that families can enjoy," she said. "Something that moves, is lightweight and lacy and lights up after dark. That would be the perfect thing to put there. Not a building. It would be glorious."

Structure or open space

Janet Marie Smith, vice president of planning and development for Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, is part of the team that is planning to redevelop the Honeywell property as a mixed-use community containing offices, shops, residences and open space. Before joining Struever this year, she helped Atlanta get ready for the 1996 Olympics, as an executive of the Turner Broadcasting affiliate that built Turner Field, a key Olympic venue and now home of the Atlanta Braves.

Smith said she is aware that current zoning would permit a performing arts center or other public building on part of the vacant Honeywell property, which she calls "the Sandbox." But she said her team is leaning toward the idea of developing much of the land along the water's edge as a public park that could provide open space for denser development elsewhere on the property.

"I don't think Baltimore needs a new architectural symbol just for the sake of having a symbol, because I believe we have a series of wonderful buildings already -- from the aquarium to Fort McHenry," she said. "If there's a need for an opera house, then I would say we ought to consider it [for Harbor Point]. But the need has to come first."

The combination of park and waterfront could in itself be a new symbol for Baltimore, she said. "Our hope is to create a serious waterfront park, in the same way that Fort McHenry is a serious park. Except that Fort McHenry closes at 5 p.m, and this wouldn't."

For a city seeking to land the Olympics, she added, a waterfront park is "a far more programmable space" to offer than property already occupied by buildings.

Richard Burns, of Design Collective, said the city will need a new arena if it's going to accommodate the Olympics, and that sort of building might be appropriate for Harbor Point. Other projects with the potential to be signature buildings, he said, are a cruise ship terminal and a federal courthouse to replace the Edward A. Garmatz building.

Several architects questioned whether Baltimore is the sort of place that can pull off the big gesture the way Sydney did. They say Baltimore is by nature a conservative city that does better with small, intimate projects.

"I don't think that the culture of Baltimore would support it or cause that to happen because Baltimore has always been a city that's polite, laid-back, conservative," said Cal Correll, architect for the University of Maryland, Baltimore. "We have the Basilica of the Assumption and Davidge Hall. They were signature buildings for their time. Baltimore has always had buildings that are good quality, but they're not spectacular or showy. It's not polite to be showy."

Even if Baltimore wanted a building such as the Sydney Opera House, the cost could be prohibitive, said architect David Gleason. Some communities may have enough wealthy benefactors to build a $240 million attraction such as Seattle's recently opened Experience Music Project, but "the money's not here," he said. "You'd have to spend money on a grand scale, and no one is going to do that here unless there's a change in attitude."

Gleason said he believes that's why some of Baltimore's best works of architecture are restorations or renovations of older buildings.

"One of the best buildings on the harbor is the Power Plant," he said. "The way they saved the smokestacks is wonderful. That's what Baltimore does best."

Phoebe Stanton, an architectural historian who serves on Baltimore's Design Advisory Panel, also wonders whether a signature building should be a priority for Baltimore. "We need a lot of other things more," she said. "The neighborhoods are a mess."

Stanton added that she is worried about the loss of activity downtown. "I don't think Baltimore has a city mentality," she said. "This is a suburban place, basically. We've vacated the downtown. All that's left is a pleasure dome around the harbor. We have fled the city. Look at Howard Street. We don't go there anymore."

Jim Wheeler, a principal of the architectural firm of Ayers Saint Gross, agrees with Stanton that residents, not tourists, should be the focus of anything built on the Honeywell site.

Wheeler said he believes that if Baltimore is serious about attracting "Generation D" -- the "digital generation" of young computer wizards -- it should use its available harbor-front property to create places that would draw them, whether it's housing or work spaces or recreational amenities. He'd like to see part of Harbor Point become "a park or a zoo or an urban oasis -- something that families can use, something that serves a cross section of the city."

A risk worth taking?

One of the risks of attempting to make a big design statement, architects say, is that it can turn out to be a big miss. Even the Bilbao museum has backfired to some extent, because some of its once-shiny titanium skin has been discolored a dull brown.

In Baltimore, "whenever a big-name architect comes to town, it seems to be a fiasco," Gleason said.

One case in which a local group attempted to create a signature building was the Columbus Center, a $160 million marine research complex planned for Inner Harbor Piers 5 and 6. After interviewing half a dozen world-class architects, including Frank Gehry, the nonprofit corporation behind the project hired British architect Richard Rogers, one of the designers of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

Rogers came up with several promising design approaches, including a proposal for a building whose roofline evoked a series of waves crashing on the shore. But partway through the design process, the development corporation canceled his contract and hired a different lead designer, Eberhard Zeidler. Columbus Center representatives voiced concerns that Rogers, while creative, was turning out to be more expensive than they could afford. Zeidler's replacement building was not nearly as lyrical as Rogers' preliminary designs.

More recently, developers of a $100 million Ritz Carlton hotel planned for Key Highway hired Princeton architect Michael Graves, another big name, in the hope that he would come up with a clever way to put a hotel at the foot of Federal Hill. But Graves' work was a disappointment, and he was replaced with architects who have extensive experience designing Ritz Carltons and upscale residences.

Still, while Baltimore takes pragmatic steps, smaller cities are taking bold ones. Milwaukee is building a museum addition designed by the noted Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava. Columbus, Ohio, recently opened a science center designed by Arata Isozaki & Associates of Tokyo.

Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art, suggests that it's wrong to think in terms of adding just one landmark, no matter how daring. If Baltimore and Washington succeed in landing the Olympics, he said, many new buildings will be needed. That can be an opportunity to build plenty of good architecture, he said, if civic leaders are willing to make that a priority.

"One project is not enough," he said. "We have to do more than that. If we got this thing, we'd have to make sure it produces many buildings that we can be as proud of as we are of Camden Yards."

Much more is at stake than any one building, agrees architect Steve Ziger, a member of Maryland's Architectural Review Board.

"I think Baltimore could use a world-class building that stimulates people's interest in architecture," he said. "And the Allied site is a great opportunity. But I would challenge the leadership in Baltimore to raise its standards for everything that's done. It's not that we need a Sydney Opera House or a Frank Gehry building. That's not the point. What we need is the expectation of world-class design excellence.

"Anything can be a landmark, if it's done well," he added. "We just need to raise our expectations."

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