The Shape Of Things To Come

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What does the future look like?

Is it a contemporary twist on an abandoned structure from Baltimore's industrial past? All-glass structures that give passers-by a glimpse of what's happening inside? A defiant gesture, such as the sharp-edged towers that will replace New York's World Trade Center, or a welcoming one, like the sun-drenched spaces of the region's newest airport terminal?

This much is certain: The future is taking shape every day on architects' sketchpads and at the tips of the cranes that rise in the sky. From groundbreaking updates at the airport and aquarium to a whole new kind of military-industrial complex, the lofty inspirations and aspirations of design theory mix with the non-negotiable realities of the building trades. Soon, we'll no longer be able to look at the world around us in the same way.

While there is no shortage of new buildings opening in the Baltimore region this year, many simply reinforce the status quo. For those seeking signs of fresh thinking about architecture -- buildings that point us in new directions -- here are six projects that show unusual promise for 2005 and beyond. Each seeks to defy expectations in one way or another, and set a high standard for design. In an age when many designers are content to play it safe and churn out more of the same, the creators of these buildings are taking risks and breaking with convention.

Judging by these works of architecture, the shape of things to come is:

ARRESTING

For thousands of commuters who use it every day, Route 50 near Annapolis is just like many other commercial strips in America -- a banal stretch of car dealerships, fast-food joints, big-box stores and other predictable roadside architecture.

But to architect Joseph Boggs, the mundane nature of this auto-oriented environment represents an opportunity to create buildings that will grab people's attention -- and perhaps raise their sights about what architecture can be.

Boggs' firm, Boggs & Partners, is the architect for Annapolis Gateway, a three-building technology park planned for a 37-acre parcel at the intersection of Route 50 and Interstate 97. The 11-story first building, due to rise starting this year, will be the headquarters for the Windermere Group, a company that develops technology for America's homeland security and defense industries.

Boggs drew on Windermere's mission and the visibility of the site -- one of the highest points in Anne Arundel County -- to sculpt a building that's intended to symbolize the area's emergence as a center for defense contractors and others working in homeland security.

The building's shell uses layers of glass and metal to suggest shielding and defense -- the kinds of activities for which Windermere is known. The result is an arresting, prismatic form that will stand out amid the more ho-hum structures all around. One edge is a glass prow that evokes the region's maritime heritage while giving people inside panoramic views of historic Annapolis and its harbor.

Because of recent advances in computer-aided design and construction technology, buildings don't always have to be simple rectangles, Boggs says. "There are more and more ways to enclose space."

Annapolis Gateway, he says, represents "a gesture toward technology, toward the future, toward a type of design that the world is moving to -- canted volumes, twisted shapes, forced perspective, sculpted forms. The World Trade Center competition [in New York] spoke to these themes."

While many architects are capable of producing good work in certain controlled settings, Boggs says, one challenge for today's designers is to bring first-rate work to areas of the public realm where people spend much of their time.

For the most part, "you don't see anything along the highways that would make you want to slam on the brakes," he says. "There's nothing to catch your eye. Wouldn't it be nice, when you're in the car, if there were a stellar piece of architecture to look at?"

UNDER GLASS

With its soaring glass pyramids, rounded concrete nose and colorful signal flag graphics, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has always been a place of striking geometry.

For the aquarium's latest expansion, a $63 million building that features a re-creation of a river gorge in Australia's Northern Territory, architects with the Boston firm of Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole did not repeat earlier motifs. Instead, they've sculpted a mountain of glass and steel that will provide a new window into Baltimore's 24-year-old "world of water." Their goal was to make the addition as transparent and extroverted as the original building is mysterious and introverted.

Part of the wonder of this addition, called Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes, and due to open this fall, is the way the glass shell is juxtaposed with the immersive environments inside, including naturalistic rockwork that will simulate a 43-foot waterfall. Add the freshwater crocodiles, and visitors will literally find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

HISTORIC

When an eight-alarm fire destroyed much of Baltimore's historic Clipper Mill in 1995, it seemed unlikely that the central assembly building would ever be occupied again. All that remained were the building's charred brick walls and giant trusses, visible to drivers speeding past on the Jones Falls Expressway.

As part of a master plan for transforming the mill property to a mixed-use community with residences, offices and artists' studios, Cho Benn Holback + Associates and Castro Arts of Baltimore designed housing that will literally rise from the ruins of the burned-out assembly building. Apartments will line the sides like cliff dwellings, and the trusses will be kept uncovered so light can filter into a new interior court. It will be a powerful reminder of the fire's devastation -- and society's ability to rebuild.

LIGHT AND AIRY

It's part of a larger entity, and yet a place unto itself. The new Terminal A / B at the Baltimore Washington International Airport will open this spring as a key part of a $1.8 billion expansion of the airport.

The 568,000-square-foot building was designed by URS Corp. as an extension of the airport's signature passenger terminal that opened in 1979. But it also updates the 1979 design for post-9 / 11 travelers, particularly in the way it handles the ticketing and security screening process and rewards passengers with a spacious retail area and lounges overlooking the airfield. Among the noticeable differences, for longtime BWI users, will be changes in colors and materials, including a white truss ceiling instead of a black space frame, and hard-surfaced floors instead of carpeting.

LAYERED

Is there such a thing as African-American architecture, and if so, what characteristics does it have?

For their design of the $34 million Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in late June, architects didn't get mired in debates about "African-American" design. Philip Freelon of the Freelon Group in Durham, N.C., and Gary Bowden, a retired principal of RTKL Associates in Baltimore, largely sidestepped the issue by focusing on creating a boldly modern building that would make the most of a tight but prominent urban site near Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Then they imbued their building with layers of meaning that help tell the story of African-Americans in Maryland.

A water feature by the front entrance, for example, suggests the body of water that Africans crossed in slave ships to America. The red wall that slices through the building represents a sudden intervention in one's life; it can be read as joyous or traumatic.

By working with architectural symbolism, the designers avoided resorting to the use of African cliches. Yet, they have created a building that's truly African-American in spirit.

LYRICAL

Cities have always been bastions of culture. Can the suburbs provide settings for music and the visual arts that are as rich and stimulating as their urban counterparts?

That's one of the goals of the Music Center at Strathmore, the $100 million concert hall and education center that will open in Montgomery County next month as a second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Designed by William Rawn Associates Architects of Boston and Grimm and Parker of Calverton, the 1,978-seat concert hall is set on a busy county artery, Rockville Pike in North Bethesda. But it strives to be as intimate, sophisticated and acoustically flawless as the finest concert halls in Europe -- a cultural landmark for suburbia.

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