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Hopkins' new building a beacon of optimism

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimoreans had enormous hopes for the city's future when they began rebuilding the central business district in the 1960s, and that optimism was reflected in its architecture.

Gleaming office towers rose in the Charles Center renewal area. Landscaped plazas were created for the many newcomers expected to live and work downtown. One restaurant alone -- the old Charcoal Hearth at the base of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre -- was equipped to serve hundreds of diners at every meal. Now that was optimism!

Baltimore's newest public building is a throwback to those heady days when people dared to think big about downtown, and wanted their architecture to show it. Its unabashedly Modernist design -- a glass and granite composition accentuated with an electronic news ticker, and nary a pilaster or pediment in sight -- compares favorably with the best buildings constructed in Baltimore over the past 40 years.

One could even argue that this new building improves on the original plan for Charles Center because it injects a use that was not initially part of the mix: higher education.

The glass-sheathed "lantern of learning" that opened at the southwest corner of Baltimore and Fayette streets on Jan. 2 is the Johns Hopkins University's new Downtown Center. Located where the old Hamburger's clothing store used to be, it's the new administrative headquarters of Hopkins' Graduate Division of Business and Management and one of five locations for its School of Professional Studies in Business and Education.

This $6.1 million, 35,000-square- foot academic center has twice the amount of teaching and office space contained in Hopkins' former downtown location two blocks north, and is expected to attract more than 2,500 students a year. Its clean lines and translucent glass walls create an impressive new address for Hopkins, which didn't previously have a strong physical presence downtown.

Besides satisfying Hopkins' expansion needs, designers of the Downtown Center made an even larger contribution to the public realm: an architecture of optimism for a city on the rebound.

As designed by Ziger Snead Architects of Baltimore, Hopkins' Downtown Center makes the same sort of bold yet refined architectural statement as the elegantly-proportioned One Charles Center office tower at 100 N. Charles St., designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1962.

By working with an architectural vocabulary similar to that of Mies' tower, the designers of Hopkins' building rekindled the '60s notion that architecture can make a difference in the way people feel about their city -- and that Modern architecture, in the right hands, can convey civic pride and optimism in a way no other design approach can.

The Modern movement in architecture took hold in America after World War II, a period when many designers wanted to make a break from the past. It produced buildings that were devoid of ornament and whose structural systems were left exposed. Their form-follows-function directness was considered an ideal expression for revitalization districts such as Charles Center.

Architect Steve Ziger, principal in charge of the project, said he chose to work in a modern idiom because he wanted to create a building that fits in with nearby structures and conveys confidence about the city's future. Just as One Charles Center provided a soaring symbol of the corporate sector's faith in Baltimore 40 years ago, he said, Hopkins' new academic center represents a renewed commitment to downtown today on the part of the university and the building's owner, attorney Peter G. Angelos.

Its design "recalls a day when there was hope for the city," Ziger said. "I believe that Modern architecture can still express the optimism that the earlier buildings did."

'We believe in downtown'

The switch from Hamburger's to Hopkins is one of the most dramatic and fortuitous transformations in Baltimore's urban landscape since the Charles Center renewal effort was launched more than 40 years ago. The change is so complete that many passers-by may not even realize that the Hopkins building uses the same structural skeleton as the clothing store.

As constructed in 1963, the clothing store was connected to the One Charles Center office tower by a wing that spanned Fayette Street. As long as Hamburger's kept it as its downtown flagship, the store was an asset to Charles Center. After Hamburger's went out of business in 1992, however, the building was converted to a discount clothing store and then closed altogether.

The vacant building was poorly maintained and soon became an eyesore on Charles Street. It also formed a visual barrier between the east and west sides of downtown, and turned part of Fayette Street into an oppressive tunnel.

In the mid-1990s, a subsidiary of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. disclosed plans to buy the property and construct a chilled water plant there. The plan infuriated Angelos, who had just purchased One Charles Center and had ambitious plans to restore it as the headquarters for his law firm and other tenants.

Well known today as the majority owner of the Orioles, Angelos was a member of Baltimore's City Council when it passed legislation launching the Charles Center renewal effort. He didn't think a chilled water plant was an appropriate use for Charles Center, or even legally permitted under the renewal ordinance, because it was a public utility and added no life to the street. After he threatened to challenge the project in court, BGE agreed to sell the property to him and build its chilled water plant elsewhere -- a victory for Charles Center.

Angelos didn't let the building sit idle for long. He worked with the city to take down the section above Fayette Street, removing the wall between the east and west sides of downtown. It was as if a giant storm cloud had been lifted from the area.

After that, Angelos arranged to lease the remaining fragment of the Hamburger's building to Hopkins, which had been seeking a new location for its downtown center. He also pledged $2.8 million to support Hopkins programs. The university's decision to expand on Charles Street is a "psychological lift for downtown," he said shortly after the lease was signed. "Hopkins is planting its flag at Charles and Fayette. They're saying, 'We believe in downtown. We think downtown is the place to be.'"

Strength and energy

Hopkins' architect, Ziger Snead, is a 17-year-old firm that consistently produces first-rate work for educational institutions, museums, churches and other organizations. This is its first major project in downtown Baltimore.

The architects decided to strip the old skin from the Hamburger's building and reuse its structural skeleton. They also squared off the box, adding half a level to the top and extending the building 16 feet on the Charles Street side.

The advantage of reusing the Hamburger's structure is that the owners saved the cost of tearing it down and building a replacement. The disadvantage is that the structure was not capable of supporting the weight of additional floors. That meant the building would still be much lower than others around it -- three stories, plus a basement. The challenge for the architects was to instill in this comparatively short structure a visual strength and energy that could help it hold up well within the context of its taller neighbors.

In response, Ziger wrapped the exterior with a light-colored skin that contrasts with the darker bronze tone of One Charles Center, and can be illuminated from within. Laminated patterned glass was used on the upper floors to diffuse light like a Japanese lantern, and a combination of granite and clear glass was used at street level.

In a sense, the building is a counterpoint to One Charles Center, because that building is tall and dark and this one is low and light-filled. Also, One Charles Center is opaque and this is more transparent.

Ziger said it was important to him that the design of the new building relate to Mies' tower, since the two buildings are so close and were linked for many years. "A lot of what we were trying to do is contrast with the Mies building -- have a dialogue with it," he said.

The proportions of the metal bands and glass on the Hopkins building are similar to those on the Mies building, except that the lines of the Mies building run vertically and the lines of the Hopkins building run horizontally. In addition, facade details on the Hopkins building were designed to give it a certain scalelessness, so it's unclear just how tall it is. Angelos suggested the news ticker as a way to activate the corner, as moving signs do in Times Square.

The key to the design is the use of light, proportion and expressed structure, Ziger said. "We've tried to give a real civic presence to this otherwise relatively small building. ... The concept was to provide a somewhat scaleless, sculptural beacon which will serve as an icon for the university and a respectful addition to its neighbors."

Spatial drama

Inside, the building contains faculty and staff offices, "smart" classrooms with state-of-the-art networking and data access, conference rooms, computer labs, a library, book store and 180-seat auditorium, plus lobbies and gathering spaces. The offices are primarily on the top floor, while classrooms and other student-oriented spaces are below.

One of the architects' strongest moves was to extend the east side of the building with a three-story-high atrium that marks the entry and serves an orientation point for those inside.

Wherever visitors go in the building, they're likely to keep coming back to this atrium, which has the drama of a theater lobby. Featuring sweeping views of the city and exquisite detailing, it's an exhilarating space that makes one feel good to be downtown. Interior materials and finishes complement the building's Modern aesthetic, while adding a sense of warmth and comfort that will make it a delight to attend classes or meetings.

Still to come are improvements to the sidewalk around the building, including a granite plaza at the entrance. Even without that work, it is easy to see how much this new building brightens the intersection and enhances Charles Center.

By embracing the architectural language that expressed optimism about Baltimore 40 years ago, and deftly adding its own strong voice, Ziger Snead has delivered an equally upbeat message at the start of the 21st century.

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