In the City That Reads, as Baltimore bills itself, could any building be more important than a library?
More to the point, could any building be more susceptible at the moment to abuse from architects looking for prominent civic commissions that will allow them to foist their idiosyncritic design visions on an unsuspecting public?
Two library projects in Baltimore - the Peabody Institute's recently completed Music Library and Academic Building at St. Paul and Monument streets, and the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, proposed for the southeast corner of Franklin Street and Park Avenue - illustrate ways architects sometimes use public funds to carry out very private design visions. Above all, they show the kind of urban mongrels architects leave behind when they violate the public trust by designing buildings without proper regard for their sites.
If ever there were a client of architecture that ought to understand the significance of fitting buildings into an area, it is the Peabody Institute on historic Mount Vernon Place.
The Peabody campus has stood the test of time precisely because its architects, for the most part, took care to "listen to the melody" and play along with it, even as they were creating a center for music education.
The architect of the $10 million music library, Charles Richter of Richter Cornbrooks Gribble Inc., made gestures toward fitting it in with the rest of the Peabody complex. He put it on a podium that lines up with an existing midblock plaza. He used a brick skin, arched windows and other features seen on neighboring structures. He linked it directly to Leakin Hall and four 1840s-era town houses facing Mount Vernon Place.
But Peabody's tight construction budget, a combination of public and private funds, would not allow for the intricate stonework and elaborate craftsmanship that are hallmarks of other buildings on the square. So Mr. Richter employed a kind of stripped-down, flattened-out, abstracted classicism that vaguely echoes traditional Mount Vernon architecture without costing as much.
To make matters worse, rather than accepting his budget limitations and playing the building down, he took more than a few steps that make the building stand out like some kind of Edwardian bank. The east wall window configuration is rigidly symmetrical, and the shiny ironspot brick chosen for the exterior is unlike the brick on any other building in the area. The ugly brownstone banding is another non sequltur. And the tall arched windows are not only different in dimension from others nearby but have a floor running right in front of them -- a faux pas even first-year architecture students know not to commit. The building is poorly detailed to boot, with brick stringcourses that don't line up and stepped granite edging near the sidewalk that seems tacked on like the roof flashing of some cheap suburban McMansion.
Inside, too, the building has its share of design flaws, including floor plans that have so little to do with the symmetrical exterior they seem to have been designed by a different architect entirely. The windowless dance studios in the basement induce claustrophobia, and the floor with the best views of the city has been given over to mechanical equipment.
Even the four restored town houses are a disappointment. Rather than adding life to the street, the houses have been butchered so they are only one room deep. With inoperative doors and hermetically sealed windows, they seem pasted onto the library like fake cardboard storefronts.
However serviceable this stark new building may be, nothing about it speaks of or to Mount Vernon. It is to the rest of the Peabody campus what lip syncing is to real singing --- hollow, vacant, never quite in step with the melody.
Even more controversial is the proposed Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, a $7.4 million building that would be just west of, and connected to, the Enoch Pratt Free Library on Cathedral Street. If Peabody's library was a song sung off key, this is Roseanne Barr screeching the national anthem.
Construction would require the demolition of two perfectly fine 1850s-era town houses on Franklin Street, a tragedy in itself. But the real issue here is that the proposed replacement defies expectations of what a well-behaved library ought to be, especially in the Cathedral Hill historic district.
The most glaring feature of the proposed design is a large, hooded window wall that pops out of the two-story base like a foreign sportscar's retractable headlight, stuck in the Up position. On the Park Avenue side is a curving aluminum canopy that looks as if the wing of a small plane fell from the sky and crashed into the building's loading dock -- except that it is the front entrance. The rest of the building has a spare, unadorned, industrial quality, with strip windows recessed here and there in a highly studied way.