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A cube of glass and water

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Asked to design an expansion of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, architects Peter Chermayeff and Bobby Poole could have played it safe and designed more of the same sort of building that's already on Pier 3.

That's what they originally proposed -- to continue the lines and materials of the waterfront masterpiece that opened 20 years ago, with its colorful signal flag graphics, heavy concrete base and glass pyramids on the roof.

But they recently came up with an alternative design that in many ways would be the exact opposite of the original building -- a glass cube that allows visitors to look in and see a 50-foot waterfall and related habitats they can explore inside.

While the old building is relatively dark and introverted, the addition appears bright and extroverted. While the old one relied on striking architecture to catch the eye, this one features striking exhibitry. Some exhibits, in fact, will spill right onto the plaza.

It's a more daring approach. And from the standpoint of preserving the original building's appearance while adding a new dimension to attract visitors, it has great promise. The glass front provides a bold new face for the aquarium and makes a wonderful gesture of openness to the city. It also mirrors the way the aquarium has blossomed from a civic institution of limited means to one with great impact and a widespread community outreach.

Planned for construction by 2005 just north of the aquarium's original building on Pier 3 (501 E. Pratt St.), the $48 million expansion is the first phase of an $88.6 million master plan that will bring changes to Piers 3 and 4. Its construction was prompted by the aquarium's desire to make a series of visitor-oriented improvements, including a new entrance, restaurant and gift shop. It also will contain one blockbuster exhibit -- the re-creation of a river canyon in the Australian Outback, complete with waterfall.

The architects for the addition, Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole Inc. of Boston, determined that these elements could all be accommodated in a building that conforms to the geometry of the existing aquarium. They suggested putting the major exhibit beneath a third glass pyramid.

But continuing the original architectural vocabulary turned out to be an expensive proposition, and early plans far exceeded the budget. That's when Poole came up with the idea of the glass cube instead.

"We thought, if we don't try to replicate it, the other way is to treat it as an extrovert, in comparison with the introverted building it is now," he explained.

Twenty years ago, "we had to design a building that was an experience on a pier," he added. "We were creating an architectural expression when there was no institution. Now that it's a very, very rich institution, with a lot of breadth and depth, we think it's appropriate to express the institution more than the architecture."

The preliminary design calls for the addition to be 110 feet square in plan, with its sides set at a 45-degree angle to the pier. One corner juts out toward Pratt Street -- a dynamic gesture that loosely echoes the aquarium's rounded nose on the south end of Pier 3. The top has been sliced off at an angle that's slightly less steep than the glass pyramids, creating a roof that from certain angles appears diamond-shaped. The two walls facing Pratt Street are made of glass, providing a welcoming new front door for the building. The two walls on the south side of the cube are mostly opaque -- forming a backdrop for the main exhibit, blocking southern sunlight and concealing mechanical equipment and curatorial areas.

The glass cube is one of several ways the aquarium is reaching out more to the public. The architects also redesigned the plaza so the visitor experience starts outside on Pier 3, with a "carpet" of free, Maryland-related exhibits leading to the new entrance. Its new restaurant also will spill out onto the pier.

The plus side

The revised plan eliminated unnecessary circulation space and lowered costs proportionately. But what started as a cost-cutting move has a number of design advantages as well.

First, it helps lift the curtain a bit on the organization. The original building has always been distinctive, but its mostly windowless concrete base has never given passers-by much of a clue what's going on inside. Visually, it's a fortress. The glass walls invite people to come closer -- and reward them with a tantalizing view of activity inside. Symbolically, they connote openness and transparency.

Second, for all its visibility on Pratt Street, the glass cube doesn't interfere with the appreciation of the original building from most vantage points. As seen from the west looking east -- the picture-postcard view -- the addition is not quite as large as the original building and therefore does not overwhelm it. The rooftop pyramid will still be the building's highest point. The blue neon wave on the ring tanks will still illuminate the night sky. The architects clearly went to great lengths to come up with a shape that makes a strong statement but doesn't diminish the original. That's one advantage of using the same architects for both.

Third, the different look should make it easier for visitors to get around than if the designers had continued the original architecture. The glass cube plugs into the north end of the aquarium without disrupting the carefully orchestrated one-way flow through the rest of the building. People will now simply have the option of heading toward the new Outback exhibit first or the Marine Mammal Pavilion or taking the original route. Aquarium directors want the attraction eventually to be read as a series of world trips, and this approach supports that reading.

Finally, there's something intrinsically satisfying about the idea that the glass addition is so much the inverse of the original. It demonstrates how far technology has come in enabling designers to re-create habitats found halfway around the world and put them, literally, under glass. If anything, its transparency will be all the more impressive because it's juxtaposed with the solidity of the original building.

Problems to consider

While the addition's basic composition and organization are well thought out, the architects have several key issues to resolve.

For example, the nature and detailing of the glass walls are critical to ensuring that the new entrance facade works as the dramatic "waterfall wall" it's meant to be. The strength of this design is the contrast between the opaqueness of the concrete building and the transparency of the addition -- introverted vs. extroverted. That will only come across if the glass is as clear as possible.

The scale of the cube needs careful study as well. The idea of creating of a simple geometrical form that complements but does not replicate the original building is a sound expansion strategy. But there are other buildings to consider in the immediate vicinity and other geometries at play, including those of the Power Plant, World Trade Center, Marine Mammal Pavilion, a new Pier 4 office building and the pierside exhibits. Even if it doesn't overwhelm the original building, the cube may be a bit too large for the total composition.

Ticketing is another concern. The plaza today is essentially devoted to the logistics of buying a ticket and waiting in line. Adding exhibits is terrific, but it will mean even less room on the plaza for people to congregate and get oriented -- and that could translate to more congestion and confusion.

One of the most potentially controversial design issues involves two attractions already in place.

The aquarium shares Pier 3 with two maritime vessels that are open for tours -- the Torsk submarine and the lightship Chesapeake. Both are docked on the west side of the pier. That's not a problem today. But if the vessels remain on Pier 3 after the addition opens, they'll block views to the north and west for people on the pier. Equally important, they'll block views toward the pier and its new additions for those looking from the north and west shores. That's inconsistent with the aquarium's efforts to become more transparent and accessible.

The best solution would be for the city to find a new berth for the two vessels -- another highly visible, well-traveled spot on the harbor. It would be counterproductive -- even foolhardy -- for the city and aquarium to embark on such an ambitious and laudable building program without making sure this Inner Harbor extrovert has the greatest possible exposure.

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