A bold new building for art institute


For too many years, Baltimore has been a wallflower at the architectural cotillion.

Los Angeles made a striking impression with its new Getty Center. Bilbao, Spain, captured the world's attention with its Guggenheim museum. Even sleepy Milwaukee is turning heads with its winged waterfront museum addition by Santiago Calatrava.

While these and other cities waltz off with the accolades, Baltimore has waited meekly for its chance to be the belle of the ball. That wait may soon be over.

Tomorrow, representatives of the Maryland Institute, College of Art will formally announce plans to build the Brown Center, a $12 million home for courses in art and design technology. The five-level building has been designed by Charles Brickbauer with Ziger/Snead Architects of Baltimore for a prime site in the Mount Royal cultural district.

Judging from initial drawings, it will be the sort of dazzler that Baltimore hasn't seen in quite some time - a highly sculptural and thoroughly original design that makes the most of a prominent urban location.

The promise of the Brown Center lies in its crystalline form, its translucent glass skin, the way it will play off nearby structures, and the reassuring message it sends about art and architecture. There has never been anything quite like it, and yet it seems entirely appropriate for and expressive of its setting and purpose. It has the potential to be Baltimore's first great building of the new millennium.

A center for digital arts

Named for Eddie and Sylvia Brown, who are donating $6 million of the $12 million construction cost, the center will be the first all-new academic structure to rise on the Maryland Institute campus since the Main Building opened at 1300 Mount Royal Ave. in 1907. All other campus buildings, except for student housing completed in 1992, are adaptations of structures built for other purposes, from a train station to a shoe factory.

With 61,000 square feet of space, the Brown Center will house departments in the college's growing digital arts curriculum, including graduate photography, digital imaging, computer animation, digital media arts, video, environmental and interior design, and graphic design, plus a 550-seat auditorium.

The site is a half-acre parcel directly opposite the college's Main Building, on the east side of Mount Royal Avenue. Just outside the Bolton Hill historic district, the land was identified in a 2000 master plan by Ayers Saint Gross as the key location to connect the current campus with an area designated for future growth.

Ziger/Snead is a 17-year-old firm that was responsible for the institute's last major academic structure, a $5.5 million conversion of the AAA office building at 1401 Mount Royal Ave. to the Bunting Center, containing a library, classrooms and faculty offices.

Brickbauer, the design architect, has been associated with Ziger/Snead since 1995 and is widely regarded as one of Baltimore's best architects. A diehard modernist who studied at Yale University, he got his start working with Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the Seagram Building in New York and has never lost his Miesian penchant for clarity and attention to detail.

Throughout his career, Brickbauer has explored different ways to build with glass. His past projects, either with Ziger/Snead or his previous partnership, Peterson and Brickbauer, include the shimmering green glass office building in Mount Washington that houses the law firm of Piper Marbury Rudnick and Wolfe; the Baltimore Washington International Airport's traveler-friendly 1979 terminal; the mirrored glass cube in Towson that serves as Baltimore County's Public Safety headquarters, and the Blaustein Exhibition Center, with its cast iron facade from the Fava Fruit Co., "folded" like an accordion.

Institute president Fred Lazarus asked the architects to design a building that would not only help the college meet its space needs but establish a contemporary image for the campus and capture the vitality of its programs.

Brickbauer responded by taking what might have been a conventional building and turning it into a work of sculpture. Because the land is at a point in the city where two different street grids intersect to create one irregularly shaped parcel, he said, a rectangular floor plate would not have made efficient use of the property. Instead, he decided to make the floor plate a parallelogram, with the exterior walls lining up with two streets that frame the site, Mount Royal Avenue and Howard Street. But he didn't stop there.

He also tilted the building's west wall at a 63-degree angle to Mount Royal Avenue - the same 63-degree angle he derived from the intersecting street grids. As seen from the side, it juts out toward the street like the prow of a ship. That makes the Brown Center one of the few non-rectilinear buildings that has the same basic profile when seen from the side or from above.

Brickbauer decided to wrap the entire composition in translucent white glass. He is working with a "fritted" material that lets in natural light and views of the outdoors while obscuring interior clutter from the exterior. It's the first time he has designed a glass-clad building that breaks out of a rectilinear grid, and he credits architect Steve Ziger and his colleagues at Ziger/Snead with encouraging him to make that leap and then helping him realize the concept.

"It was very much a collaboration," Brickbauer said. "I could never have done it without their support."

The result is a building that looks different from every angle yet reads as one unified volume. Approached from the south, it seems literally on edge. As seen from the Jones Falls Expressway, it will have a softer, rounded shape that follows the curve of a service drive below and is suited to viewing at 55 mph. From the north, the most prominent feature will be a four-story glass atrium that projects outward and serves as the main entrance. This atrium has a sloping roof that conceals mechanical equipment and a stairway that provides sweeping views of Bolton Hill. Near ground level, the projecting glass wall will fold inward to create a covered opening.

The architects showed great sensitivity in the way they held the new building back so it doesn't block the west wall of the neighboring Fox Building, which houses galleries and studios. The Fox Building's ground floor will be renovated and linked to the Brown Center by a glass connector.

With its many angles and facets, the Brown Center joins a growing list of buildings that are bent, folded and otherwise composed to create dynamic shapes. What makes this building different from many "deconstructivist" projects that have come before, the architects say, is that nothing about Brown Center's shape is arbitrary.

"The angular faceting of the building is based in crystalline geometries," Brickbauer said. "It was developed in logical response to the geometries of the site, programmatic requirements, and the college's desire for a dynamic focus at the campus center."

Architecture is "the intersection of place and idea," said Ziger. "Everything about this building is determined by this site and this program. ... It couldn't be anywhere else."

While the building may appear complicated on the outside, it is actually quite straightforward on the inside - a simple loft structure. The lower two floors contain the auditorium and lobby, and the upper three floors contain classrooms, studios and faculty offices. The poured-concrete structure consists of 20-foot by 40-foot bays spanning the auditorium and permitting flexible space-planning in the teaching and study areas above. Twelve-foot cantilevers extend the floor plates out in all directions, supporting the glass skin.

The smooth glass walls of the Brown Center will be a provocative counterpoint to the ornate white marble shell of the Main Building across the street. Faculty and administrators take pride that the institute's teachings strike a balance between tradition and innovation. Along with the electronic courses, the college still encourages students to develop low-tech skills of drawing, painting and sculpting. The architectural juxtapositions of old and new, static and dynamic, familiar and surprising, represent the perfect expression of that dual approach to art instruction. Brickbauer predicts it will "stimulate a dialogue between two centuries about contemporary and traditional forms, technologies and materials."

The building's sculptural quality also neatly sums up the "digital" nature of the subjects to be taught inside. The architects say the crystalline shape probably could not have been created - certainly not as easily - without the use of the very computer-aided design techniques that students will learn there. It's a building that's very much of its time. It gives new meaning to the phrase "state of the art."

Finally, because the building will be visible from the Jones Falls Expressway and Pennsylvania Station, it will also be a beacon to the world at large. Observers won't need a neon sign to know what takes place there. Its shape says what it's all about - creativity and innovation. It's an ideal symbol for the "Digital Harbor" movement and the city's growing prominence in technology and design.

Artistic vision in action

The architects have more than a few hurdles to cross before they'll know whether their building will be a success. Interior spaces still must be detailed so they're consistent with the spirit and vocabulary of the exterior. The college needs to select a builder and obtain permits. The building will be subject to some degree of community design review.

But the college has already made great strides in its quest to create this digital dazzler for the 21st century. That's a tribute to Fred Lazarus and his far- sighted board of trustees.

In an age when many corporate and municipal clients look mostly at the bottom line, daring and risk-taking in architecture are in short supply. But the Maryland Institute has always taught students to see architecture as art, with the power to excite people and exert a positive influence on their lives. Its Main Building embodied those ideals at the start of the last century. Its ambitious design for the Brown Center shows this is one institution that still practices what it teaches.

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