Great buildings for a great city

Developers in downtown Baltimore seek tax breaks and infrastructure improvements for their projects. In return for those benefits, Baltimore should require an architectural design competition in an effort to make the city a center for world-class architecture.

A good place to start would be the project at Harbor Point being developed by John Paterakis, where the city will build a bridge from Harbor East to the Point and grant tax breaks for the development. But this requirement should be required of all downtown developers — and the city should also use design competitions for its major projects. World-class architecture boosts tourism, adds pizazz and would enhance Baltimore's prominence.


Bob Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, has long advocated architectural design competitions. Abell, with the University of Baltimore, sponsored a competition for the John and Frances Angelos Law Center just south of Penn Station. This fine building now greets passengers arriving at the station and adds to the school's prestige.

An excellent example of the use of architectural design competitions is Bilbao, Spain. Slightly smaller than Baltimore, Bilbao is also located on an eye-catching waterway. Like us, Bilbao has sought to replace its lost manufacturing jobs with tourism, office development and downtown housing. The centerpiece of its plan became the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a truly iconic building.


In 1991, Bilbao and the Guggenheim Foundation invited three world-renowned architects to compete in a design competition. Frank Gehry was the winner. He used wide swaths of structural aluminum to clad the building. With no sign of how the swaths are attached to each other, there is an air of mystery to the structure. It shines and reflects in most any light, is a monument to technical achievement, and works as a museum. Design competitions were also used for Bilbao's airport, subway stations and renovated symphony hall, each time achieving excellent results.

Baltimore does not have a requirement for design competitions; there is a review by the Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel, but this is purely advisory. As a result, the recently reviewed Caesars casino planned near M&T Bank Stadium will add merely a mediocre building to the city's skyline. Given all the public assistance for Caesars — a state-granted monopoly, tax breaks and infrastructure assistance — it seems little to ask for the city to have required a design competition to achieve a handsome building.

Private developers will argue that such a requirement burdens their projects with extra costs. But is it too much to require these developers to deal with the possibility of increased costs in return for all the public benefits they receive?

It is clear that just one building as stunning as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao would do wonders for Baltimore. And it is also clear that architectural design competitions are worth doing.

The results of a series of design competitions for private and government buildings could be visually spectacular and a huge boost for the city. Baltimore needs more star quality in order to prosper in the 21st century, and great architecture is one way to shine.

Mark K. Joseph is founding chairman of The Shelter Group, a multifamily real estate development and management company headquartered in Baltimore. His email is