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Real estate - or art?


Fans of architect Frank O. Gehry can take in four of his early works in downtown Columbia, but they'd better hurry.

Two of the four are headed for demolition.

Howard County officials hope to knock down a Gehry-designed firehouse to build a larger facility. The Rouse Co. intends to replace the architect's Exhibit Center with another building.

The plans have upset preservationists, who say the 35-year-old buildings have historic and architectural significance.

"When you have a couple of buildings in the county that were designed by the undisputed pre-eminent architect living in the world today, I think it should be saved and put to another use," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who lives in Columbia.

But others - including two architects who collaborated with Gehry on the buildings - question whether they are worth saving. Gehry was traveling and unavailable for comment, according to his assistant in Santa Monica, Calif.

The firehouse - officially known as the Public Safety Building - has been substantially renovated since it opened in 1967. There have been a couple additions, and the installation of a dropped ceiling reduced energy costs but also hid exposed beam work.

Even before those changes, developer James W. Rouse meddled with the architect's original designs for both buildings, which he had commissioned for his new town of Columbia, said C. Gregory Walsh of Los Angeles, who worked with Gehry on designs for both.

Gehry's team dreamed up something "strong" and "abstract," Walsh said. Rouse wanted "overtly friendly."

"Rouse was a difficult client, you can probably imagine," Walsh said. "Their agenda was different than ours. As developers, they had problems getting people to move out there. ... As I remember, the shapes that we would probably like to have utilized were, you might say, abstract. Rouse's preference was that things were always warm and human."

That kind of compromise is common in modern architecture and it muddies debates about preservation, said Roger K. Lewis, professor of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I think with contemporary architecture, it's a little harder to make the case [for preservation]," Lewis said. "It's so totally driven by economics."

Economics are behind the decisions to knock down the buildings.

The Rouse Co. wants to demolish the two-story concrete-and-stucco Exhibit Center to build something - what or when is not known - that would capitalize on its prime lakefront location.

Originally used to showcase plans for the planned city of Columbia, the 20,000-square-foot building has housed offices and restaurants since the exhibit closed in 1989.

Howard County wants to tear down the firehouse because its Department of Public Works determined that doing so would be cheaper than adding to the 9,600-square-foot building. The proposed capital budget for fiscal year 2003 includes $455,000 to plan the project. The new building would be 13,000 square feet and cost $2.57 million.

The firehouse has a stucco exterior and high pitched roof, but no bunk room because it was designed to be staffed by employees on three eight-hour shifts. But Station 7 firefighters work 24-hour shifts.

Sleeping quarters have been added, but they are pretty tight, said Joseph Herr, Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue chief. The equipment is cramped, too. The station has two bays, so the medic unit has to exit a back door, he said, slowing its response time.

"It's functionally obsolete," said James M. Irvin, the county public works director.

Gehry designed these when he was getting his start as an architect - long before art museums showed retrospectives of his work. Then, a design such as the abstract, $100 million titanium landmark he created for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, likely would not have been well received.

Not that Gehry would have considered such buildings at the time, Walsh says. Even before Rouse toned down his designs for the Exhibit Center and firehouse, they were fairly conventional. The buildings blend in with the surrounding 1960s and '70s architecture.

Gehry's Merriweather Post Pavilion, also designed in 1967, was hailed mostly for is acoustics. The outdoor amphitheater has been significantly expanded since then. Gehry also designed the Rouse Co. headquarters. Praised for its natural light and flexible interior, some think it is hardly eye-popping.

"This doesn't represent his work. He didn't get famous doing buildings like our building and the Exhibit Center," said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse.

Scavo called Gehry's more recent work "wild and wonderful" but said his Columbia designs do not fall into that category.

"It was not representative of where he was going, and it wasn't even him," he said, referring to Gehry's collaboration with others on the projects.

Bobo called the Exhibit Center and firehouse "beautiful in their simplicity." She disputed the notion that the buildings are not important because they are early works and dissimilar to his more radical designs.

"What would anyone say to an early Picasso?" she asked. "What would anyone say to an early Matisse? What would anyone say to an early I.M. Pei? You know? It's part of the history of architecture on our planet. So that's what I would say to that. What would you say to an early poem of Shakespeare's?"

Lewis, the architecture professor, said the buildings' long-term significance will hinge largely on how history treats Gehry. He is a big name now, but Lewis thinks he might not leave an enduring legacy because his signature works are too expensive, complicated and idiosyncratic to spawn a broader architectural movement.

"I don't think that work [in Columbia] is inherently significant or necessarily great architecture," he said. "It becomes of interest only if somebody wants to trace his evolution as an architect. Then it might be of interest, academically speaking."

It's tougher to preserve architecture than other works of art because buildings often occupy expensive space and need to be functional, Lewis said.

"The history of architecture is littered with thousands of buildings that have been demolished over time because they've been lost, either because of neglect, fire, flood, volcano," he said. "Buildings do get obsolete, they get torn down, they get modified, they get absorbed into other buildings. It's the thing that makes architecture different from painting and sculpture. We manage to keep painting and sculpture around a little more easily.

"The fact remains that, for some people, it's just real estate. They don't put it in the same category as a work of art that you should save at all costs."

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