A Clear Message


Baltimore's newest work of art is a glass-clad building that rises above Howard Street like the prow of a ship.

As seen from Penn Station, shimmering in the morning sun, it's a mirage, an iceberg, a faceted gem.

Along Mount Royal Avenue, two of its walls lean back as if in repose, while another tilts forward at a precarious angle. Is it nodding in homage to the older building across the street, or challenging it for supremacy?

These are just a few of the possible readings of Brown Center, a $20 million academic building that opens Friday at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Designed by Ziger / Snead and Charles Brickbauer to put MICA on the map as a center for digital art and design, Brown Center is that rare work of architecture that lives up to its billing. It is, quite simply, the first great Baltimore building of the new millennium -- a world-class home for art in the Mount Royal cultural district.

Much of the early attention to the building at 1301 Mount Royal Ave. has been focused on its crystalline forms and glass skin, which changes in color and translucency with the position of the sun. Its form alone, at once recessive and assertive, simple and complex, makes it an antidote to the "safe," neo-traditional structures rising at most colleges.

What students and teachers may find equally striking, once they move in, is the sense of logic and precision that pervades every square inch of this corner of campus. From the moment they arrive, they will know that they've entered a precinct of extreme order, a place where every detail has been studied and restudied. Nothing has been left to chance.

The result may not be everyone's cup of tea -- or idea of beauty. But the message is clear: There is a new order at work here, a new vision, a new way of seeing. There is everyplace else in the world, and then there is Brown Center.

"This structure, standing in counterpoint to the Main Building, is a metaphor for the college's strength in balancing traditional practice in art and design with the demands and opportunities represented by new technologies," says MICA president Fred Lazarus. "It really is a symbol of the 'digital and design' culture coming into its own at this institution, and represents the dynamic tension between tradition and innovation."

On the most basic level, then, Brown Center can be seen as a large, permanent work of public sculpture -- a three-dimensional billboard for the institute and its programs. "It's evidence of the importance of design" in an urban setting, adds Ellen Lupton, coordinator of the master of fine arts program in graphic design.

"We're in a city that's a collage of architectural forms of all kinds, old and new. Here's actual, real, bona fide modernist architecture. It's innovative. It's different. It doesn't look like it has always been there. It's a sign to everyone on campus that design matters."

A contemporary image

Named after benefactors Eddie and Sylvia Brown, the center is the first all-new academic structure to rise on the campus since 1907, when the Main Building opened at 1300 Mount Royal Ave. All other campus buildings, except for student housing completed in 1992, are conversions of structures built for other purposes.

The five-level, 61,410-square-foot Brown Center was constructed to house studios, classrooms and offices for undergraduate majors in experimental animation, interactive media and video, and graduate programs in graphic design, photography and digital arts, as well as a 550-seat auditorium, called the Hall at Brown Center.

The half-acre site is directly opposite the college's Main Building, on the east side of Mount Royal Avenue, and south of the Fox Building, a former shoe factory converted to studios and galleries. For this prime parcel, college leaders wanted a structure that would not only provide much-needed teaching space but establish a contemporary image for the campus and reflect the vitality of its programs. They got all that and more.

But this building is not an abstract sculpture in the same sense as Frank Gehry's curving creations, which seem somewhat arbitrary in nature. There is nothing arbitrary or whimsical about Brown Center. To the contrary, there's a rigor and rationality that grow out of its intended use and site. The result is a highly sculptural building with its own internal logic -- and that's what makes it so intriguing.

On every side, for example, the glass walls are neatly scored with an orthogonal grid that meets the ground at perfect right angles -- even when the walls themselves don't. Day or night, the grid imparts a sense of order to the spaces within. The sense of order and precision extends to the grounds, where a fountain in the entry court features the same parallelogram shape as the side of the building and the roof plane.

Inside, the building is straightforward-- a simple loft structure. The lower two floors contain the auditorium and entrance lobby; the upper three contain classrooms, studios and faculty offices. The poured-concrete structural system consists of 20-foot by 40-foot bays that span the auditorium, making it easy to reconfigure the teaching and study areas above, to accommodate emerging technology. Twelve-foot cantilevers extend the floor plates in all directions, supporting the glass skin. On the upper levels, most of the perimeter is devoted to corridors, which double as galleries for student and faculty work.

Essays in glass

The design team has extensive experience working on college campuses, including MICA's. Ziger / Snead was responsible for the institute's last major academic structure, an award-winning conversion of the old AAA office building on Mount Royal Avenue to the Bunting Center, with a library, classrooms and faculty offices.

Brickbauer, the design architect for Brown Center, has been associated with Ziger / Snead since 1995 and is widely regarded as one of Baltimore's most talented architects. A die-hard modernist who studied at Yale University, he got his start in the 1950s working with Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Over the course of his career, he has created a series of buildings that could be described as essays in glass. His projects, either with Ziger / Snead or a previous partnership with Warren Peterson, include the green glass office building in Mount Washington that houses the law firm of Piper Marbury Rudnick and Wolfe; the mirrored glass cube in Towson that serves as Baltimore County's Public Safety headquarters; and the 1979 terminal at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Brown Center represents the first time Brickbauer has designed a glass-clad building that departs from an orthogonal grid -- a move he says is a direct response to the site. Because the land is at a point in the city where two different street grids intersect to create one irregularly shaped parcel, he says, a rectangular floor plate would not have made efficient use of the property. So he made the floor plate a parallelogram, with the exterior walls lining up with the two main streets that frame the site, Mount Royal Avenue and Howard Street.

He also tilted the building's west wall at a 62-degree angle to Mount Royal Avenue -- the same 62-degree angle he derived from the intersecting street grids. He then wrapped the structure in glass coated with a ceramic "frit" material that lets in natural light and views while obscuring interior clutter from the exterior. The result is a building that looks different from every angle yet reads as one unified volume.

As part of the project, the college renovated the ground floor of the Fox Building, gave it a new entrance, and linked it with a glass connector to the Brown Center. Next year, it will get a ground-level cafe and more gallery space, allowing the two buildings be used together even more.

According to Brickbauer, all of Brown Center's angles and facets were derived from the geometries of the site, programmatic requirements, and the college's desire for a dynamic focal point at the center of campus. The beauty of working with a geometrical system, he says, is that once it's set up, decision-making becomes easier. "I always work with a system," he says. "When you do that, almost everything gets related. ... It's easier to have a sense of order."

Brickbauer, 73, says every building he designs has its own architectural vocabulary. "It's like learning a new language each time. The more the design progresses, the more fluent you become. But you have to listen closely to find the language, to decide what the building is and how the pieces fit together."

To those acquainted with the restored rowhouses and other older buildings of the adjacent Bolton Hill neighborhood, Brown Center may indeed seem like a foreign language.

One reason the architects were able to create such a boldly contemporary structure is that the construction site is just outside the Bolton Hill historic district -- of which Brickbauer himself is a longtime resident. Had the Brown Center site been in the historic district, Brickbauer's building would have been subject to additional layers of public review, and that could have affected the final design.

Controversial points

Of course, when architects work this hard to impose order, imperfections stand out all the more.

Looking north along Howard Street, one can see an air intake vent that ruins the otherwise clean lines of the roof. That ordinary beige box is perhaps the building's most irksome feature -- an off-the-shelf element that isn't consistent with the rest of the building's precise vocabulary.

Other design decisions are sure to become the subject of extensive debate as the building is occupied in the coming months.

One potentially controversial aspect of Brown Center is the glass skin and the way it changes color and character throughout the day. Early renderings made the glass look whiter than it turned out to be. It usually has a green or gray tint.

The glass is opaque in the day and makes the building seem monolithic. At night, when lights are on inside, it's possible to see through the glass, but the view is like looking through gauze. There will be those who like seeing the building as an object, but not seeing the ceiling ducts and other inner workings at night. Others may enjoy seeing the innards.

Brickbauer initially thought the glass would be whiter. But because the glass is laminated, he says, the color varies with the thickness of the panels. "It's all exactly the same glass, but some panels have three layers [of glass], and that's where it's slightly greener."

The interior contains several knockout spaces, including the soaring atrium lobby with its free-standing staircase, the handsome performance hall and the upper-level seminar rooms along the west wall. The most conventional spaces are the computer labs, which are essentially windowless boxes in the middle of the building. Students working at computers typically want to be away from natural light, which may cast a glare on their screens, so it made sense to set those classrooms away from the outer walls. The result is that Brown Center is essentially a building within a building. The college might have saved money by eliminating the glass wrapper, but that would have meant losing the sculptural quality that sets it apart.

The interior is enriched by material juxtapositions that create an aesthetic of contrast -- handmade and machine-made, rough and smooth, raw and refined. But in many respects, it's all about the view out. Since the building is clad entirely in glass, it offers spectacular views from its perimeter corridors, including close-ups of such Baltimore landmarks as Corpus Christi Church, Penn Station and the Howard Street Bridge.

"It's not just an object to be looked at," says Lupton, the graphic design program coordinator. For those inside, "it's a device for looking at Baltimore. ... It makes Baltimore look great."

Because its form is different on every side, the glass wrapper conjures up all sorts of associations. The east wall, facing the Jones Falls Expressway, has a soft, rounded shape that follows the curve of the service drive below. From the north, the most prominent feature is the four-story atrium, which serves as the main entrance and rises like a glass pyramid.

The west wall, with its 62-degree tilt, is more jarring -- intentionally. Is it too assertive for its setting? My own view is that Brown Center is far enough away from the Italianate Main Building -- separated as it is by the wide Mount Royal Avenue corridor -- that it doesn't pose any sort of threat to it. In line with his linguistic explorations, the architect set out to stimulate an architectural "dialogue" about new and old forms, materials and technologies, by creating a building that literally and figuratively reaches toward its progenitor. The visual tension created by the leaning wall serves as the opening line of that conversation.

If Brown Center threatens any part of the urban fabric, it's the Fox Building next door. Despite the architect's effort to hold Brown Center back so it doesn't block the west or south walls of the old shoe factory, the new building still seems uncomfortably close to its neighbor from certain vantage points.

Both the Fox Building and Brown Center gained an attractive forecourt, though, when college leaders opted to turn a former parking lot into a pedestrian plaza. Designed by Higgins-Lazarus Landscape Architects, it cleverly plays off Brown Center's geometry and provides a useful gathering space at the center of campus.

Deserving of praise

Like any good work of sculpture, Brown Center will generate a wide range of reactions, from fans and foes alike. That goes with the territory. That doesn't make it any less great. Architecture is the mother of the arts, and art should be provocative.

If nothing else, MICA's leaders and donors Eddie and Sylvia Brown deserve the highest praise for taking the risks they did. It would have been so much easier to put up a less adventurous building and call it a day, but that wouldn't have adequately expressed the college's spirit or mission.

Some observers may never warm up to the choice of glass, or the juxtapositions of old and new. That's their prerogative. But there can be no denying that Brown Center offers an original, innovative, highly rationalized setting for the study and creation of art in Baltimore, and that's no mean feat.

In so much of the world these days, chaos reigns. In this one corner of campus at least, there is order and precision.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad