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Flawed formula for Science Center


Pity the directors of the Maryland Science Center.

They have such a terrific story to tell, but such an awful place to tell it.

Though it has been remodeled and expanded since it opened in 1976, the science center has never had the striking presence or mesmerizing ambience of its sister institution across the harbor, the National Aquarium in Baltimore. To some degree, it has always suffered by comparison.

Now the science center has one last chance to move up to the next level and command the attention it should have had all along. Directors want to double the amount of exhibit space with an addition that will cost $20 million and occupy the last available large building parcel on the west shore. Featuring the first major exhibit on East Coast dinosaurs, the new wing will cap a $37-million modernization designed to keep the science center from becoming a dinosaur itself.

The architect, Design Collective of Baltimore, has proposed a multiphase expansion -- part renovation, part new construction -- that will essentially reinvent the four-story building at 601 Light St. and correct internal problems that have plagued it for years. The layout is logical, and the exhibits will greatly enhance the visitors' experience.

But the exterior of the proposed addition -- a hypermodern building that looks from certain angles like a pair of computer screens or television sets -- seems a curious expression for an institution that wants to get potential visitors excited about all the changes inside. People may be used to sitting in front of a computer or TV screen, but do our buildings have to look like them as well?

Designed by noted architect Edward Durrell Stone as one of the first buildings on Baltimore's refurbished Inner Harbor, the science center completely missed the mark as a public attraction and has had to play catch-up ever since.

Instead of the soaring glass pyramids and colorful signal flag graphics that beckon visitors to the aquarium, the fortress-like exterior of Stone's building seemed intended to keep people out -- a common trait with buildings designed shortly after the 1960s riots.

Its layout was confusing. Its displays weren't interactive. Its octagonal structural grid made it hard to change exhibits. It wasn't even oriented to the harbor until a window wall and IMAX theater were added in the 1980s.

More than one observer has suggested that the best solution for the science center might be to tear down the entire complex and start over, but that would leave the institution without a home for several years. Instead, directors opted to remodel existing space and add on. They're counting on the new wing to provide the pizazz the center never had before.

The new plan

The architects proposed to expand the science center with a 42,000-square-foot addition that extends northward from the original building. The expansion would make the building L-shaped in plan, with the original structure running parallel to the harbor's south shore and the new wing running parallel to the west shore. At the hinge of the L, the IMAX theater will remain. To connect one leg to the other, architects designed a glass passageway that follows the curve of the IMAX cylinder and becomes both a new main lobby for the center and a potential exhibit space, completing the building's reorientation to the harbor.

The new wing has two major exhibit areas, the Earth Sciences and Dinosaur Hall and a temporary exhibits gallery. The temporary exhibit area would be one level higher than the dinosaur hall, with a loading dock underneath.

Instead of continuing Stone's octagonal volumes, Design Collective introduced a different geometry for the new wing. The architects describe it as a series of "scoops" that extend from the center drum and toward the downtown skyline. Walls are clad in copper and glass on the harbor side and brick on the Light Street side. The roof slopes up to a height of 53 feet for the Dinosaur Hall and 70 feet for the traveling exhibits hall.

In renderings, the two major exhibit areas look like oversized megaphones placed on their sides. At the ends are large window walls that allow people inside to look out and let people outside glimpse exhibits and other activity within.

The layout makes sense for an institution that's eager to build on what it has and doesn't want to shut down for repairs. The L-shaped plan produces a building that brackets the southwest corner of the harbor basin in the same way that the twin Harborplace pavilions frame the northwest corner. From an urban design perspective, there's an appealing symmetry to this new configuration along the west shore.

The exhibit design also builds on successful precedents initiated by the science center itself. Faced with the need to present information in a more timely fashion, the staff has come up with a strategy of combining conventional, fixed exhibits with multimedia "links" that can be updated electronically to provide the latest news about research and discoveries.

The first example is SpaceLink, an area within the Outer Space Place exhibit that has been used since 1999 to present images from the Hubble telescope and other sources. The setting evokes Mission Control in Houston, with video monitors along one wall and a control panel in the middle. It supplements a more conventional exhibit about space exploration.

The second link will be BodyLink, due to open this spring. The third will be TerraLink, part of the Earth Sciences and Dinosaur Hall. Executive director Gregory Andorfer says he wants to make the science center as lively and engaging as a sports bar -- "the ESPN Zone of science" -- and sees the video screens and computers within these links as valuable tools for the science center.

Design problems

Given the flexibility provided by these high-tech links, the shell of the new wing might have taken any number of forms and been effective. The scoops will certainly grab attention and signal that there's something new inside. But there are drawbacks as well. The extruded megaphone shape doesn't exactly soar like the aquarium's pyramids. It's alien to the rest of the composition -- austere, imposing, a bit edgy.

It's also not original. In the 1980s, a Miami firm known as Arquitectonica designed a building with the same basic shape for Rio at Washingtonian Center, a shopping / entertainment complex off I-270 in Gaithersburg. People there even call it the TV Set Building.

Another problem is that the forms do little to enhance the Key Highway or Light Street sides of the science center, even though both streets are major approachways. This is one building that should have no backside, but it's now so thoroughly reoriented to the harbor that it seems to have turned its back on the rest of the city.

Architect Richard Burns acknowledged that Design Collective could have taken a more conventional approach, perhaps echoing the glass wall from the 1980s. But he said the science center directors wanted a design that would draw more people, and he didn't think that building more of the same was the way to do it.

"I believe the form, scale and exact placement of these 'windows,' as well as the entire organization and form of the expansion, will accomplish what we set out to do for each visitor and passer-by -- to educate, to entertain and to energize," Burns said.

That's fair enough. The scoops work as visual trumpets that blare out what the science center has to offer, symbols for the way it's bursting at the seams with information. And on one level, they do reflect what's inside. One could argue that the TV set imagery is fitting because the science center increasingly relies on video monitors and computers to convey information, and the exterior simply hints at their growing role in the visitor experience. It's less of a stretch than the ESPN Zone's flaming sports ball shish kebobs.

TV or not TV? Between video screens, computer windows and blaring trumpets, there certainly is a workable theme here for some kind of building -- a TV station or chain of rental video outlets, perhaps. But the Maryland Science Center? In many ways, television is the antithesis of what the science center is striving to become, and vice versa. People visit the Inner Harbor, and its attractions, as an alternative to watching television. Given all the new and amazing things that will be inside the new wing, it's disheartening to think designers couldn't come up with anything more captivating than the image of TV screens.

Part of the problem, too, is that the design is too literal, and too familiar. Even if one could find merit in the use of TV sets as architectural iconography, these are not the fancy new flat TV screens that are so popular today, or the latest thin-screen computers from Apple. They're more like the old-fashioned versions from the Ozzie and Harriet days, when the box was so big and the screen was so tiny.

The greatest shortcoming of the proposed form is that it doesn't adequately reflect the steps the center has taken to improve the way it conveys information. The architects introduced a different geometry, but the science center needs a building that reflects the new paradigm that has taken hold inside. Andorfer has been exploring the idea of adding a Jumbotron screen to the exterior, but that wouldn't be necessary if the building itself were more expressive of its contents -- more of a window into science, not just into the building.

High hopes

As the science center architects fine-tune their designs, one can't help but admire the foresight that city planners had in putting the science center and aquarium on opposite shores of the harbor and giving them room to grow. Had they been placed closer together, or even side by side, they might not have generated as much foot traffic.

At the same time, those early planning decisions did much to shape the institutions today -- and how the public perceives them. The aquarium was a star from Day One, set on a pier for all to see. The science center has had to evolve into one, and that hasn't been easy.

The proposed expansion is a step in the right direction. But with $20 million and a prime harbor location at stake, the science center board shouldn't settle for any more baby steps. To be a star, sometimes one needs to reach for them.

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