Scratch the surface

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore has long been known as a brick city, but metal seems to be the material of choice these days for designers seeking to dress up everything from fast food outlets to apartment houses.

And the one type of metal that's appearing on local buildings more than any other is corrugated metal - panels pressed to form parallel grooves and ridges that provide added strength and a sense of depth and shadow.

Ribbed metal panels can be seen on the latest addition to the Maryland Science Center. A new retail center on Boston Street in Canton. A seven-story apartment building near Charles Village.

Metal panels also have been suggested for the next addition to the Lyric Opera House and the upper levels of the 19-story, $305 million hotel that Baltimore wants to build next to the downtown Convention Center.

All of a sudden, corrugated metal is the new Formstone - the building material that's turning up everywhere.

While its novelty can make a statement, it also can be worrisome. Depending on the amount used, and the way it's used, metal can be an intriguing accent feature or it can make a building look cheap. If overdone, it can be faddish.

A touch of the past

"It started out as a positive reference to Baltimore's industrial heritage, but now it's becoming a cliche," said Deborah Dietsch, a member of Baltimore's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel, which scrutinizes plans for new buildings around the city. "We see it on the new convention center hotel. We see it on retail buildings. We see it on every kind of building. It's become a formula."

As with anything else, "it can become overused. It can become trendy," warns local designer Alex Castro. In the future, "people will look at a building and say, "Oh, that's 2006. That's when they brought out the metal.' "

Baltimore has seen such trends before. Aluminum siding in the 1950s. Synthetic stucco, or "drivit," in the 1980s. The latest trend appears to have staying power, for several reasons.

First, metal panels are lightweight and relatively affordable. Bricklaying is labor-intensive. Corrugated metal panels are made by machine and delivered to the construction site, where they go up quickly and precisely.

Second, ribbed metal panels have a clean, unornamented look that fits in with the neo-Modernist aesthetic that's in vogue these days. They're descendents of the glass and metal systems that go back to the Bauhaus school of design.

Third, they're not brick. Metal surfaces provide a visual contrast to the red brick and beige concrete walls that are ubiquitious in Baltimore. As a result, they can help a building stand out.

And metal fits in with "loft living," the trend of people moving to former factories and warehouses that have been converted to apartments.

A natural for lofts

In Baltimore, loft living started in recycled clothing or sailcloth factories on the west side of downtown. Now developers are building "lofts" from scratch in neighborhoods that never had factories, such as Charles Village. In many cases, the term "loft" is more a marketing device than anything else.

There was a time when metal was primarily an industrial building material, used in factories, warehouses, storage sheds, airport hangars, gas stations and auto repair shops.

Then it went upscale. California architect Frank Gehry was one of the first to take such materials as chain-link fencing, plywood and corrugated metal and use them in unexpected ways, such as wall partitions for offices. In the 1980s, designers seeking an edgy look for nightclubs turned to gray carpet, metal partitions and exposed ductwork.

It was only a matter of time before industrial materials ended up on the exteriors of buildings. Gehry led that trend too, cladding museums and concert halls with titanium and other unconventional metals.

Before long, corrugated metal became a mainstream material, used vertically and horizontally. One noticeable application can be seen at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants, part of a chain that uses corrugated metal to form its "look."

The metal on the new retail center in Canton, according to architects from Ziger/Snead, represents a continuation of the use of metal on canopies and roofs on the former American Can Company buildings nearby. It successfully wraps a highly sculptural form, and pops out against masonry buildings all around.

The effect is not always pleasing. The new Cresmont Lofts, off 29th Street near Howard Street, look from some angles like a giant sardine can with windows.

Not much success

To be fair, Baltimore has rarely done well by metal-skinned buildings. The 1994 wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art, with its burnished aluminum panels, looks like a car wash (and is targeted for a partial recladding in the museum's master plan). The champagne-colored metal helmet at the Baltimore City Community College's Bard Building on Market Place was never much of an improvement over the leak-prone tile surface it replaced.

It's not surprising, then, that two members of Baltimore's design review panel expressed reservations about a metal panel system proposed for certain exterior walls of the convention center hotel and asked the architects to consider alternatives.

"I just feel this is a little drab," Dietsch said of one wall that will be visible from the seats at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. "It's just a little drab. It's drab."

"There's something that looks Harry Homeowner-built" about it, added panel member Stan Britt.

The best designers can make a building look good with almost any materials, of course. It's a matter of color, form, proportion, detailing and other basics. One of the problems with corrugated metal is that with repeated usage, it tends to wear thin - and look unoriginal.

Maybe that's not such a concern for a fast-food chain. But it can be a problem for a 19-story hotel that aims to make a lasting contribution to the urban landscape. When the convention center hotel opens in 2008, if it has ribbed panels, it will be at the end of the metal skin trend, rather than the beginning. It's likely to look as dated as last year's cell phone.

In fact, the pendulum may already have begun to swing in another direction. Off the 2700 block of Boston Street, developers of the Lighthouse Point community just stripped the metal skin off a 50-foot-high boatel that opened in 1998. They say they're moving the boat storage operation to a different location and wanted to give the building a new look as they changed its use. The new skin will be a combination of masonry block, glass and metal.

Replacing one metal skin with another? Now that's a trend that bears watching.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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