Mario L. Schack, noted architect, educator, design critic, dies at 81

Mario L. Schack, an award-winning architect and educator who influenced Baltimore's skyline with his buildings and his critique of others' designs, died Thursday at Gilchrest Hospice Care of complications from surgery he had in October. The Riderwood-Lake Falls-area resident was 81.

Over a career that spanned more than five decades, Mr. Schack balanced jobs as an architecture professor and department chairman at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and a partner in several Baltimore-based design firms, including RTKL Associates; Marks, Cooke, Schack and Thomas (now Marks, Thomas Architects); and MLS Associates.

Mr. Schack was the principal in charge of design for several major buildings in Maryland and beyond, including the Charles Center South office tower in Charles Center, the former Southwestern High School in Baltimore; the Albin O. Kuhn Library on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus in Catonsville; St. Mary's Convent in Annapolis, and the Geological Sciences building at Cornell. In 1980, he was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. He encouraged local architects to form the Urban Design Committee of the AIA's Baltimore chapter.

Mr. Schack also had a significant impact on the local urban landscape as a design critic. He sat on three civic panels that reviewed building proposals for key sites in Baltimore, from the late 1970s to the present. As a paid member of the Design Advisory Panel from 1978 to 2004, the Architectural Review Board from 1980 to 1997, and the Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel from 2004 to 2010, Mr. Schack was one of a handful of professional critics who influenced the design of just about every major building constructed in the city during that period.

In May 1986, Mr. Schack's daughter Nina was one of four crew members who died after the Pride of Baltimore sank during a squall in the Bermuda Triangle. After her death, Mr. Schack donated his services to design a maritime-themed memorial on Rash Field to honor the lost crew members; the first building on the Living Classroom Foundation's East Baltimore campus off South Caroline Street, the Maritime Institute Building; and a master plan for the campus.

Other architects may have designed a greater number of buildings in Baltimore, but Mr. Schack had more influence than most by virtue of his work on the review panels, local architects say.

"He may not have been the architect, but just about every building in Baltimore is a Mario Schack building because of his comments about them," said Richard Burns, a principal of Design Collective of Baltimore. "He understood what makes good buildings. Through his insightful critiques, the urban landscape in Baltimore is of a higher quality. That's his legacy."

Mr. Schack's suggestions typically made a design better because he combined academic idealism with a real-world view of what it takes to construct buildings while staying within budget and time constraints, said David Benn, a partner of Cho Benn Holback + Associates.

For a public library branch on Orleans Street, Mr. Benn said, Mr. Schack suggested that the architects make the building bigger, so it wouldn't get lost on an intersection surrounded by structures of various scales. Mr. Benn said his design team changed its design to follow Mr. Schack's advice, and the library turned out much better.

"He was very interested in the urban design implications of things," Mr. Benn said. "He always felt one should look at the big picture and make sure the project improves the city."

M. Jay Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., which oversees downtown development in the city, said he thought Mr. Schack was "one of the most constructive critics that we've ever had."

"He combined a sense of the history of architecture with an appreciation for contemporary design ideas," Mr. Brodie said. "He would ask architects, 'What is your intention?' Not just show us a picture and we'll respond. He wanted to know, 'What is the thinking behind your idea?'"

He always pushed students and colleagues to take a project "to the next level" said Yui Hay Lee, who heads a 15-employee design firm in California and considers Mr. Schack a mentor. "He didn't want to go for the usual solution. He wanted you to go one step further."

Mario Lawrence Schack was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on April 3, 1929, to an Italian mother, Erica Sormane Schack, and a German father, Jacob Schack. His father died when Mario was 8 from an allergic reaction to penicillin after a bee sting. After his father died, his mother moved Mario and his older sister, Yvonne, to Milan, Italy, where they lived with his aunt. Several years later, they moved to Brookline, Mass., and became U.S. citizens.

For a short period, Mr. Schack attended the Vermont Institute of Technology and California Polytechnic Institute in St. Luis Obispo, Calif. He interrupted his studies to serve as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during the Korean War from 1951 to 1954. After the war, he enrolled in the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, where in 1960 he earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree. When he returned to the U.S., he enrolled in Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, where he studied with noted architect Josep Luis Sert and was earned a Master of Architecture degree in Urban Design. From 1962 to 1963, he continued his studies at Harvard, working toward a master's degree in City Planning.

From 1961 to 1962, while in Massachusetts, Mr. Schack worked for Sert Jackson Gourley of Cambridge and from 1962 to 1963 for Sasaki Walker. In 1963, he joined the design faculty at Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

In 1965, he left Cornell after a good friend and Harvard professor, George Kostritsky (the "K" in RTKL), invited him to come to Baltimore and join RTKL as a design studio director. Mr. Schack eventually became a vice president at RTKL but left in the mid-1970s to return to Cornell, where he served as chairman of the architecture department from 1975 to 1980.

From 1978 to 1983, Mr. Schack was a partner in Marks, Cooke, Schack and Thomas in Baltimore. He later left that firm and started his own firm, MLS Associates. In 1993, he rejoined the Cornell faculty and was awarded the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Chair for Architecture. He retired from Cornell in 2004.

For many years, Mr. Schack headed the "Cornell in Washington" program, in which upper-level architecture students spent a semester working on projects in Maryland and Washington.

Architects say Mr. Schack commanded their respect on the review panels because he had solid credentials as both an academician and practitioner.

"Mario … was such a calm personality," said fellow design panel member Gary Bowden. "He was unflappable. I always wanted to emulate him because he had a way of saying things that made them palatable. You would be willing to accept a critique from Mario just because of the way he delivered it."

He cared deeply about the city, said architect Steve Ziger of Ziger/Snead. "He was always a very fair and thoughtful critic, whose comments improved the designs that he reviewed."

Outside the design studio, Mr. Schack was an avid lacrosse fan and patron of the arts, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Lyric Opera House and Center Stage. He loved the ocean, traveling around the world, classical music, and his old English sheepdog, Sophia. One of his greatest joys was teaching and sharing a Roman lifestyle with his students during the Cornell-in-Rome program, according to his wife of 17 years, the former Donna Cox.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church, 6428 York Road in Baltimore. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to: The Intensive Care Unit Family Meeting Project, Dr. Rebecca Aslakson, Fund for Johns Hopkins Medicine, 100 N. Charles Street, Suite 223, Baltimore 21201.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Schack is survived by a son, Lawrence Schack of Bloomington, Minn., a daughter-in-law, Rozlynn Schack; two granddaughters, Jadelyn and Francesca Schack; and a close cousin, Dr. Lando Mayer of Milan. His sister, Yvonne, died in November. A previous marriage to Romilda Foti ended in divorce.

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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